on 27 May 2006
I first became a fan of Joan Baez in the heady days of the sixties, when America was wrestling with racism and other social injustices, and opposition to the Vietnam War was mounting. Much has changed since then. Presidents have come and gone, and a wholly different set of challenges has been presented. The war on terror, post 9/11, also involves a very different enemy.
And, of course, Joan Baez has changed too. Most obviously, she's some 40 years older and the flowing, jet black hair has given way to a silvery blue, closer cropped look. But for me, that's about the extent of it. That crystal clear soprano voice is still intact, and her ability to bring a wide range of songs together into a coherent album has not waned.
Bowery Songs, recorded live in New York in November, 2004, has something for every fan. Traditional folk classics such as "Jackaroe" sit comfortably alongside standards like Woody Guthrie's "Deportee" and Dylan's "Farewell Angelina", but there are also more contemporary (and previously unrecorded) gems like Steve Earle's "Jerusalem".
Modern recording techniques no doubt helped in making this live album sound as good as any studio material possibly could, but the main credit for this must go to Joan and her small, but select, group of backing musicians. Their efforts are sensitive to the individual songs, funky in places and reassuringly acoustic in others. The net result means there are no 'fillers' or weak tracks, just an hour plus of top notch entertainment from a singer who can still send shivers down my spine. I've never been fortunate enough to see Joan in concert but, based on this flawless offering, it's something I wouldn't pass up if the chance came along. Superb!
I have commented separately on the newly expanded and released double CD of the 1995 concert recording of "Ring them bells" which I found a bit of a disappointment overall. This single CD also released by Proper Records and again a live recording from New York from 2004 has the edge on that other recording. This is because of two key things - first it is just Joan without any other co-performers and she still has an amazing voice and delivery (shown at the outset in the acapella "Finlandia") even if some older songs (notably "Joe Hill" ) have been changed to accommodate her current vocal range. Secondly the choice of songs is wide and covers old folk songs, Dylan favourites, songs from her then recent release plus some new songs never recorded before (though they may have featured in live performances). The backing group is fine - supportive but not top flight soloing pickers - who complement the overall low key show well as a result.