Familiar Voice, Welcome Message
Joan Baez comes to the Shedd
by Suzi Steffen
Groupthink’s an odd thing. When Steve Earle started writing songs protesting George W. Bush’s War on Terrorism, music writers and critics and former fans gave him guff (and country stations banned him as well). And when Joan Baez sang protest songs in concert in the early days of the Iraq War, a palpable “been there, done that” feeling pervaded concert reviews.
Now that there’s been time for people to process the facts about the war(s) and elect a president with a different take, every review of Baez’s new album, the Steve Earle-produced Day After Tomorrow, speaks respectfully about her long history of activism and protest.
I’ll join the chorus here even if I’m not completely enamoured with the album. I don’t like Baez’ anemic, too-folky cover of Patty Griffin’s “Mary,” but that’s only because the original stands as damn near perfect. Fans of Tom Waits and his “Day After Tomorrow” may feel the same way, but the stripped-down version Baez sings with her now alto, still compelling and still recognizably famous voice resonates back through the years she has dedicated to singing for peace. The soldier in “Tomorrow” says, “What I miss you won’t believe / Shoveling snow and raking leaves / And my plane will touch down on the day after tomorrow,” and there’s almost no way to resist tears — not to mention fury at the waste of human life. “Don’t they pray to the same God that we do?” the soldier asks.
Baez answers in other songs on the all-acoustic album, like Eliza Gilkyson’s “Requiem,” written for the victims of the Asian tsunami and revived strongly for those who tried to flee Hurricane Katrina. And then there’s the most musically compelling song, a cover of Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett’s “Scarlet Tide.” That song, which Alison Krauss performed on the soundtrack to Cold Moutain, gives a mourning woman voice to say, “Man goes beyond his own decision / Gets caught up in the mechanisms / Of swindlers who act like kings.”
True, anti-war songs pepper our recent history, and humans still have these damn wars that kill and wound in ways we don’t even recognize. But when Baez promises “We’ll rise above the scarlet tide,” you want to believe her.
Joan Baez plays at 7:30 pm Friday, Nov. 21, at the Shedd. The concert is sold out, but some tix may be returned, so check with the box office. $30-$62.