At 77, 59 years after making her live debut, Joan Baez has announced the end of her extended international touring; she has, however, sweetened the pill by also releasing her first album in a decade, one that shows no diminishing of her musical prowess or passion. Produced by Joe Henry and featuring such top session names as drummer Jay Belarose, guitarist Greg Leisz, Tyler Chest on keys, upright bass player David Piltch and Mark Goldenberg on gut-string guitar, there may not be any new Baez songs, but her choice of covers is as impeccable as ever.
It opens with the title track, Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan's reflective piano-led number from Bone Machine, rearranged for guitar with Patrick Warren on pump organ and Janeen Rae Heller on saw giving it a folksier more wistful air. The pair are revisited later, Warren on organ and tack piano, Leisz on Weissenborn and John Smith playing acoustic, for Bad For Me's defiant last man standing hymn to endurance, 'Last Leaf', a song that serves as useful encapsulation of Baez herself.
Josh Ritter also contributes two hitherto unrecorded songs, the first up being the rather lovely 'Be Of Good Heart', which made its first appearance sung in concert by Baez (as 'Be Of Good Heart Evermore', back in 2016), a sort of non-recriminatory you go your way and I'll go mine call of the road number with Chester on organ and Leisz on mandolin. The other, 'Silver Blade', which he started performing last year, is very much in the traditional folk ballad mould of the fair maiden murdering the enobled cad who promises her the world then casts her aside once he's had his way, coloured by Bellerose's rumbling drums and Leisz on 12-string acoustic. It is, of course, also a perfect thematic companion piece to 'Silver Dagger', a song closely associated with Baez and which appeared on her debut album.
Henry gets a look-in on song credits too, his 2007 recording 'Civil War' given a more obvious waltzing arrangement with brushed drums, the theme of domestic-conflict taking on a wider resonance in the current American political climate, chiming perfectly with Baez's folk-protest heritage.
War also rears its head in the closing track, 'I Wish The Wars Were All Over', It's credited to Tim Eriksen, who recorded it on his 2001 Appleseed debut, but, in fact, versions date back to the 1700s, the earliest record being its appearance in a book titled A Sailor's songbag : an American rebel in an English prison, 1777-1779. Although the album sleeve notes say the Baez version has new words and arrangement of Eriksen's words, the lyrics are actually the same as those on his album, the arrangement, Goldenberg's gut-string prominently in focus with Leisz on mandocello, while deeper voiced, also following his trad-folk styling.
The remaining numbers are all by women writers, although the eco/mortality-themed 'Another World' was actually written by Anohni back in 2008 when she was still Antony Hegarty from Antony & The Johnsons. The title track of the EP, the original version was a spare piano ballad but, while still stripped back, this features Baez's vocal and guitar backdropped by dampened, pulsing percussion by Gabriel Harris.
Both Eliza Gilkyson and Mary Chapin Carpenter have been covered by Baez on previous albums, and she returns to the well here. 'The Things That We Are Made Of' was the title track from Carpenter's last album, taken at a similar tempo here, but somewhat fleshing out the original's spare arrangement with more prominent use of drums and piano, while Gilkyson's 2008 judgment day protest song, 'The Great Correction', sees the tempo taken up a notch into bluegrass/country waltz territory, Baez giving it some vocal warble and Leisz a twangy guitar solo.
The album's stand-out, however, comes from someone whose name will be unfamiliar to most. Also featuring on her own album, the hymnal-toned 'The President Sang Amazing Grace' was written by Zoe Mulford about then President Obama's visit to and sharing in the eulogy for South Carolina state senator Clementa Pinckney, one of nine black Americans murdered by a white supremacist at the end of a Bible study in Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mulford's version features just her voice and a piano, but it takes on a more anthemic quality here with the piano accompaniment bolstered by drums, upright bass, gut-string guitar and Weissenborn. It's so perfect for Baez, it could have been written for her and seems certain to join the other classics in her extensive and impressive hall of fame.
Her voice is deeper, more seasoned with the years than when she sang things like 'There But For Fortune' or 'Diamonds and Rust', but the command, the power, the emotion and the conviction is undimmed. Long may it continue to shine.
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