Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Joan Baez at Herbst Theater

Joan Baez’s new CD Day After Tomorrow has been creating a bit of a stir lately. Produced by Steve Earle, with all-acoustic instrumentation and an all-star Nashville band—Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, Viktor Krauss, Kenny Malone—the album is one of Joan’s best in many years and has even made Amazon’s Top Ten folk albums of 2008. But the recording pales in comparison to Joan’s live show and rockin’ new band: John Doyle on guitar and mandola; Dirk Powell on banjo, mandolin, accordion, and fiddle; and Todd Phillips on acoustic bass guitar.

I got to see them last week at the luxurious Herbst Theater in San Francisco. Joan sang some songs from the new CD (Steve Earle’s “God Is God,” Eliza Gilkyson’s “Rose of Sharon,” Elvis Costello’s “Scarlet Tide”) as well as many of her early folk classics (“The Lily of the West,” “Fennario,” “Joe Hill”) and some that she described as “what you came to hear” (“Farewell Angelina,” “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word,” “Love Song to a Stranger,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”). Joan has a special affection for Steve Earle’s songs, which is perhaps not surprising considering their sympatico political leanings, and her versions of Earle’s “Christmas in Washington” and “Jerusalem” were highlights.

Joan onstage was charming. Though she looked a bit tired and frail (this is her 50th year as a performer), she pulled off the 90-minute show without faltering, injecting humor even at the end of a solo “Diamonds and Rust” (altering the final line “If you’re offering me diamonds and rust, I’ve already paid” to “If you’re offering me diamonds and rust, I got the Grammy”).

The new band was brilliant, creating a rich bed beneath Joan’s strong vocals, weaving punchy, spontaneous guitar and bass lines, colored by whatever instrument Powell had in his hand at the moment. Particularly nice were Powell’s Cajun fiddle on “Farewell Angelina” and Doyle’s solo guitar backup on “Christmas In Washington.” Joan and the band are continuing to tour this winter and spring. If you’ve ever had any affection for her singing and point of view and want to hear her with a great acoustic band, I’d recommend catching a show on this tour.

And oh yeah, I may be filling in for John Doyle on a few gigs this spring!!

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