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Tuesday 12 December 2017

FOLK'S FIRST LADY COVERS THE GREATS

Vicar Street > CHRIS WASSER

You gotta make the first line count. We'd heard that America's first lady of folk, Ms Joan Baez, had opened her recent London gigs with a traditional number, Handsome Molly. Of course she did - the first line is a reference to the city itself. Tonight, she's decided to go with the same opener, albeit a slightly altered version. "Well, I wish I was in Dublin," sings the grey New Yorker. Ah, wise move, Joan.

She's here for three sold-out nights - that's a lot of Joan Baez. Not nearly enough for some, however, who look to the 73-year-old songstress as a towering presence in human and civil rights activism.

Tonight, let's separate the politics from the music (if that's even possible) and focus our attention on the tunes. There's a very thin line between cover artist and 'interpreter', but Joan is pretty good at turning another performer's song inside out. Remarkably, she breathes new life into John Lennon's Imagine, and her version of The House of the Rising Sun (another traditional one) is quite effective, too (hats off to the lighting guys).

SPANISH

Joan does her best impression of Bob Dylan (the two were romantically involved in the 1960s) on the latter's Don't Think Twice, It's All Right. Seriously, she does an actual Bob Dylan impression, and it's very funny. Spot-on, too.

Joan also talks of trips to Brazil and digs deep into her 1974 release, Here's to Life: Joan Baez Sings in Spanish. All well and good, but the tracks are sort of lost on us. Such a shame, as one of them comes equipped with a chilling back story (The Weeping Woman).

Fans cry out for Diamonds & Rust, a top-40 hit from 1975. Now there's a song about love (clue: it has something to do with the Zimmerman fella). "If you've got only one hit, you leave it till the end," responds Joan. And so she does. Granted, some of the big ballads have a tendency to blend into one another, and this intimate, warm club offering occasionally sweeps in and out of lulls. But it has its moments.

Multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell earns his money tonight, and he even dances with Joan on Give Me Cornbread When I'm Hungry, the only barnyard boogie in the set. Gabriel Harris (our leading woman's son) makes for an accomplished percussionist.

It always comes back to Joan, though - an effortless performer, nice storyteller and efficient guitarist.

The voice isn't as strong as it used to be (she's on the cough sweets tonight) but it's still got plenty of character and depth to carry us through 100 minutes. Actually, it doesn't feel that long. Sign of a decent gig, that.

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