I was really looking forward to this double bill, and I was somewhat disappointed. Newark, you're Newark, and that's fine. You don't have to be some kind of hoity-toity faux-Manhattan, you know? The people were so stuffy!
Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson
New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, NJ
October 28, 2005
False men and false leaders, fallen heroes and firmly held ideals were on Joan Baez’s mind at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in late October. It’s not that social concerns are anything new to the venerable performer, who jokes often about her age. One such quip came after she mentioned one of her albums. “Should I explain what an album is?” she asked archly, and then explained that in the early days of her career, “I just stood next to the big black-and-white dog and sang into the tuba.”
Age has served Baez well. It’s added richness to her voice: How on earth does one talk about her sound, her aspect, without referring to the archetype she created in the 1960s, that birdlike soprano flowing from between the wings of raven hair? Otherwise, she’s escaped all the usual traps. She’ll traffic in nostalgia, for sure, but only when she wants to, and not without a sense of the present. (The NJPAC crowd enjoyed a musical joke she’s done for several years, where at the end of “Diamonds and Rust,” she told her blue-eyed, “unwashed phenomenon” erstwhile lover: “If you’re offering me diamonds and rust/ I’ll take the Grammy.”) And, despite her penchant for onstage dancing — a hip-swiveling, “I Dream of Jeannie”-armed maneuver that’s so uncool it’s cool — she doesn’t embarrass herself by trying to pretend she’s anything but a grownup. Sixty-four-and-a-half at the time of this concert, she didn’t even seem to be denying the “half” — just making that age look as fine as it possibly could.
What was surprising was the thematic cohesiveness of her set. She’s done many of these songs over the past few years, from “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Diamonds and Rust” to Steve Earle’s “Christmas in Washington” and “Jerusalem.” Here, though, she brought them all together as a sort of musical revue designed to remind her listeners that there are youth in harm’s way and snakes in the henhouse. In a beautifully realized version of Elvis Costello’s faux-Civil War parlor song “The Scarlet Tide,”she added a line about bringing the boys back home, which made more pointed and contemporary the stanza: “Man goes beyond his own decision/ Gets caught up in a mechanism/ Of swindlers who act like kings/ And brokers who break everything.”
Not all of her choices were wise — particularly giving over part of the set to two cringeworthy poems, one written in African- American “dialect” — but, for the most part, she upheld and even surpassed that worthy image she created nearly half a century ago. Accompanied by two longtime band members — Graham Mabe on bass, guitar, and backing vocals, and Erik Dallapenna on guitar, lap steel, mandolin, and backing vocals — she might have rocked the house, if this house were able to be “rocked.”
NJPAC’s ornate setting — six balconies! — comes off less rich than nouveau riche; whoever paid for its showy splendor seems to have also ordered a cadre of audience members who seemed to find it beneath them to show too much adulation. Baez garnered some laughs and the requisite, if faint, singalongs for hits like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson, who were co-billed with Baez and had been first to take the stage, suffered from the torpor. There was nothing wrong with the Thompsons’ performance, which featured a chance to witness the extraordinary synergy between the unrelated guitarist and bassist. Maybe the music they offered was too complex for the strangely inert atmosphere. Richard Thompson’s self-deprecating wit — about Front Parlour Ballads, he said, “Rolling Stone said, ‘Extraordinary is not the word for this record’ ” — fell on ears unattuned to subtlety. The encore almost had to be begged for, as three or four Thompson fans stood and clapped vehemently over a wash of jewelry-rattling by the masses. One of these fans complained during the break: “Thompson sang, ‘Crawl back!’ and looked for us to answer, and when I sang back, ‘Crawl back!’ the guy in front of me turned around and glared.”
— Pamela Murray Winters