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Concert Review: Joan Baez's 'Dark Chords' rise up to move audience

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

By Jim White, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's hard to imagine that Joan Baez is in the sixth decade of the mosaic of music and social activism that has been her life.

But it's easy to remember after hearing her capture the essence of that life in 90 minutes at the Byham Theater on Monday night. She sang new songs and old songs, told political jokes, chatted with the audience and plainly enjoyed her ability to move an audience with music.

From her folk-singer origins in the late 1950s, to her status as the folk singer of the early '60s, to her current status as folk icon, Baez has lent her music and her name to a variety of political and social causes, beginning with civil rights and Vietnam war issues.

Baez is touring now on the release of her latest album -- her first in six years -- the pensively titled "Dark Chords on a Big Guitar," and sprinkled its moody and reflective songs into her set. These new recordings do what her best songs have always done, from Dylan to Natalie Merchant -- reflect the moods and sensibilities of imaginative musical spirits.

From "Dark Chords," she included "Caleb Meyer" (Gillian Welch and David Rawlings), "In My Time of Need" (Ryan Adams), "Motherland" (Natalie Merchant), "Rexroth's Daughter" (Greg Brown), "Elvis Presley Blues" (Welch and Rawlings) and the very political "Christmas in Washington" (Steve Earle).

She invoked the folk ghosts and legends of Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill and lovely old folk pieces like "Farewell Angelina" and "Noah's Dove," and one of her larger hits, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."

About midway in her set, she released her excellent backup band to do a solo turn with her guitar on some classics like Johnny Cash's "Long Black Veil," Phil Ochs' classically chilling "There But for Fortune" and a haunting traditional folk ballad, "Fare Thee Well." And there was a charming "Earth Angel," a tribute, she said, to some of the first music she learned after being given a ukulele.

Oddly, for someone whose early music and life were so intertwined with those of Bob Dylan (it's not too widely known how influential she was in opening musical doors for the young Dylan), and despite the fact that Dylan's work was some of the greatest of his generation, there were no Dylan songs beyond "Farewell Angelina."

Baez, 62, no longer hits some of those pristine high notes that were the hallmark of her early years. But she works the lower register of her vocals very effectively. Her vocals sometimes are lost behind her band's strong playing, and that's a shame, because the lyrics of her wisely chosen repertoire are its primary message.

The opening act was Josh Ritter, 26, singer-songwriter touring with his new album, "Hello Starling."

Ritter was engaging, self-effacing and funny, and performed a set of his own finely crafted songs, including the poignant "Kathleen," the somber "Wings" (on the new Baez album) and a slightly Dylanesque "You Don't Make It Easy Babe." He also seems to be quite popular in Ireland, where he has performed and where "Hello Starling" debuted at No. 2 on the Irish Album charts a week after its September release.

Jim White can be reached at or 412-263-1964.

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