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Joan Baez: Whistle Down the Wind
by George Graham
(Razor and Tie Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/21/2018)
Surely one of the iconic folksingers of the 1960s is Joan Baez. Known as much for her activism as well as for her enduring popularity as a performer, she was a witness to or participated some of the great social events from the 1960s on. At age 77, she has just released a new recording called Whistle Down the Wind, her first in nearly ten years.
This year also marks the 60th anniversary of her professional musical debut, performing in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1958, where her father was a professor at MIT. Her recording career began in 1960, and with the folk music revival experiencing considerable popularity at the time, Ms. Baez became a central part of it, and her albums were quickly successful. In the early 1960s, she became an advocate for the then-unknown Bob Dylan, recording some of his songs and sharing stages with him. She was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and was a key performer at Woodstock in 1969, and has remained active in forums from opposing the Iraq war to LGBT rights. In the mid 1970s, she again enjoyed success with her own original song Diamonds and Rust. But most of Ms. Baez’ work consist of her interpretations of the works of others, from traditional ballads, to more contemporary compositions, with an eye for songs that can have special meanings. In 2017, she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Now, to coincide with what she said will be her last year of formal, extended touring, she is out with Whistle Down the Wind, and it’s a fine record with a nice selection of songs, featuring classy understated production, with Ms. Baez’ own acoustic guitar being in the center. She includes two songs by Tom Waits, interestingly, and a nice collection of other songs by contemporary writers, with some of the them sounding very traditional. She also includes some songs that seem to consider mortality.
The album was produced by Joe Henry, who has emerged as an excellent sensitive roots and folk producer. The Los Angeles area group that join Ms. Baez on the album includes some ubiquitous studio musicians like drummer Jay Bellarose, steel and resonator guitarist Greg Leisz,. bassist David Piltch, and keyboard men Tyler Chester and Patrick Warren. Ms. Baez herself understandably does not have the angelic voice and high-notes she had all those years ago, but her performance imparts maturity and a sense of place in the world.
Opening is one of two songs on the album by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, the title track Whistle Down the Wind. One could hardly imagine two more different-sounding vocalists than Waits and Baez, but Ms. Baez gives the song a distinctly folky direction and with a performance appropriate for the introspective lyrics. <<>>
The album also has two songs by contemporary singer-songwriter Josh Ritter. The first is Be of Good Heart, which has a classic early Dylanesque sound. <<>>
Producer Joe Henry contributes one song, Civil War, an interesting piece with lyrics that could be taken literally or figuratively. <<>>
Ms. Baez includes a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Things We Are Made Of. The composition is in Ms. Chapin Carpenter’s trademark style, an introspective love song, and Ms. Baez’ delivery is near perfection for its mood. <<>>
The other song by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan is Last Leaf, ostensibly about autumn, but is in a way an allegorical autobiography, about Ms. Baez and her lengthy career. <<>>
There are a couple of contemporary songs that are like traditional folk ballads. Silver Blade by Josh Rouse is an old-fashioned murder ballad. <<>>
The album’s most powerful and memorable song is one by Zoe Mulford, a true story of yet another gun massacre, this one at a church in South Carolina, and President Obama’s reaction when he visited the church. The song is called The President Sang Amazing Grace. <<>>
The album ends with another contemporary song with the sound of a classic traditional ballad, I Wish the Wars Were All Over, written by Tim Eriksen, but adapted from a manuscript from the 1770s. <<>>
Whistle Down the Wind the new recording by folk music icon Joan Baez is a fine album that features a classic sound but with contemporary compositions. Ms. Baez is in very good form, sounding outstanding for age 77. Though she doesn’t attempt the airy high notes that were her trademark in her youth, her voice conveys the songs with the kind of subtle emotional depth that only comes with maturity. The album’s arrangements and Joe Henry’s production are outstanding, very tasteful with some sonic colors beyond the simple guitar strumming of the folk music days, but always in keeping with the spirit of the music.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A” with good clarity and Ms. Baez’ voice captured accurately and without any attempts at augmenting it with effects. The instrumentation has a warm sound, and though the dynamic range is somewhat restricted by volume compression, it’s better than average for a contemporary recording.
Joan Baez, in her CD booklet notes calls Whistle Down the Wind a bookend to her first album in 1960. Though she says that her extensive tour this year will be last for formal extended touring, that leaves a big window for continuing less-grueling appearances. On her new recording, Ms. Baez remains a true folk music luminary, a performer for the ages, which by the way, have been kind to her.
(c) Copyright 2018 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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