Like so many living jazz legends, Joan Baez is competing with her past. She has a new album, Dark Chords on a Big Guitar (Koch), but the early recordings for Vanguard that established her reputation are all being reissued with bonus tracks. The Complete A&M Recordings, compiling her work from the 1970s, came out last September, and it's not just her own albums that resurface. Bob Dylan Live 1975 documented the prominent role she played in the Rolling Thunder tour (which was further recounted in the reissue of On The Road With Bob Dylan, a book by Larry Sloman on the first legs of that tour). Now you can also hear her and Dylan cracking each other up onstage while singing, "Mama, You Been On My Mind" on The Bootleg Series Volume 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964 -- Concert at Philharmonic Hall. Baez thinks about having a past as active as her present philosophically: "It's the difference between being a legend and a legend that's current. If I wasn't still making music, then it would be depressing."
Staying current has its costs. "I have things I really love doing. I love writing poetry," she says. "Music interrupts everything." For Dark Chords on a Big Guitar though, she didn't write any of the songs, instead playing songs written by contemporary songwriters such as Greg Brown, Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch and Josh Ritter. "Songwriting's hard," Baez admits. "Poetry's easier. It's more unstructured for me. If it was as easy as poetry, it would be a breeze." The body of work behind her also affects things; with so many records behind her, "I felt like I'd reached a point where I was reinventing the wheel." Of course, people don't necessarily think of Baez as a songwriter primarily. Throughout her career, she has popularized songs, and many found the Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" after hearing her version.
On the new album, she isn't reinventing herself. Folk shines through her versions of Caitlin Cary's "Rosemary Moore" and Joe Henry's "King's Highway" -- the latter tune a murder ballad that sounds centuries old. If there's a surprise besides her song choices, it's the crunch provided by guitarist Duke McVinnie; more crunch, in fact, than has been present in most of the writers' versions. Vocally, Baez doesn't really inhabit the songs, but she never has. Instead, she treats them like remarkable art objects and presents them as beautifully and as sensitively as possible.
Ironically, she admits she doesn't always understand the lyrics. "I don't have a clue what the last verse is about," Baez says of Natalie Merchant's "Motherland." "I sang a Dar Williams song that was so complex I explained it to the audience, and she heard and loved the version, but she said I explained it wrong." Baez laughs. "I don't ask what they mean anymore because I don't remember, anyway. In the back of my mind I have my own imagery and I go back to that anyway."
"I'm a fan of everything. I'm the world's biggest sports fan. If someone has moved you, you need to tell them." In fact, Erin McKeown, who opens Sunday for Baez, goes so far as to write letters and send CDs to people who have, in one way or another, impressed her and has made some friends that way. "Being open to being blown away by something is important," she says, admitting the artist who blows her away is Judy Garland. "She's not thought of as a singer like Ella (Fitzgerald), but she should be," McKeown says. "It's not just great pain; there's great joy and a lot of rhythm in her singing."
Garland is a central figure in Grand, McKeown's second album, but not in any stylistic way. The songs range from power pop to lounge, but the lyrics are small dramas involving pop culture figures from the 1930s to the 1960s, "the period she was famous," McKeown says. That time span is of particular interest to McKeown because it represents the start of a division in American culture. "Until the Beatles came, pop culture and music were tied more to Broadway, and the music was popular with people of all ages. There was less of division between youth and adults."
McKeown didn't, however, set out to write songs about the end of Igor Stravinsky's life. "Distillation (her first album) was a personal record," the 25 year-old McKeown admits, "but I did it naively. I put it out and didn't expect scrutiny." After that, "I didn't want to talk about myself so much, and I thought, 'Why not explore other people's stories and roles?'"
After Grand, she says she's ready to explore more personal subject matter, but she believes she's learned how to write it in a way she's more comfortable with: "It's all about balance."
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