With a career that effectively straddles the entire history of popular music, Joan Baez is an artist for whom the legendary tag was probably invented. Baez made her debut at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 and released her debut album in 1960 (an album selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Recording Registry) and was one of the first artists to recognise the talent of an aspiring Bob Dylan before she closed out the 60’s with a performance at Woodstock. Her recording career has continued to this day with over thirty albums and songs performed in a range of languages. Alongside her musical achievements, her political and social activism has shone a light on many areas including the civil rights movement, human rights and the environment. Joan is one of very few artists who can claim (not that she would I’m sure) to have made a difference and her legacy is assured. Refusing, at 77, to rest on her laurels she’s back with a new album ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ her first release in almost a decade.
‘Whistle Down The Wind’ was recorded in Los Angeles in ten days of sessions that finds Joan performing songs from some of her favourite composers, under the production guidance of Grammy-winning Joe Henry. The result is an album of very fine songs, performed with sympathetic care and an attention to detail that impresses from the opening note of the title track to the final refrain of the closing ‘I Wish the Wars Were All Over’ a song from 2001 by Tim Eriksen, that sounds like it was written and recorded a century earlier. Said opening track will be familiar to many as it was penned by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan and Joan will revisit Waits later in the set for ‘Last Leaf’ from his 2011 ‘Bad As Me’ release.
Joan has claimed that it, naturally, gets more difficult to sing as she used to hence, for the most part, her higher register is used sparingly, but this is never an issue due to her ability to interpret the songs which has always been second to none. Her subdued and slightly weathered tone is perfect on the chosen material and feels both warm and inviting, a little like she’s sitting in the room with you, even if the subject matter gets more than a little dark on occasion.
Nowhere is this more evident than on a quite stunning interpretation of Anohni’s ‘Another World’ which exhibits a stark bleak beauty. The Antony and the Johnsons original, on their EP of the same name, has been rearranged with a percussive acoustic guitar taking the lead, when matched with the heartfelt clarity of Joan’s vocal ‘Another World’ exhibits new life, which is ironic as the song is about the end of things. The piano led ‘Civil War’ written by producer Joe Henry and recorded by Joe on his ‘Civilians’ release follows, “Every truth carries blame, every light reveals some shame” and again reinforces how well the collaboration between Henry and Baez works. While Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘The Things That We Are Made Of’ is an inspired choice as it’s such a beautiful song and “If the past’s another country I’m at the border with my papers” is such a terrific line.
If ever there was a song that was perfect for Joan Baez then the Zoe Mulford penned ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’ is that song as it shines a light on America’s issues with gun control and the treatment of mental illness. It's a song of such incredible simplicity and power that Joan performs with flawless integrity as you’d expect. Eliza Gilkyson’s ‘The Great Correction’ also appears here, another perfect fit as a song with a social conscience that sounds as fresh as ever. It would appear that not all the material on offer here is previously recorded / released as the two Josh Ritter songs which make the cut are both (I think) new songs ‘Be of Good Heart’ which manages to be both lightly upbeat and melancholy in equal measure and ‘Silver Blade’ which sounds very traditional and instantly familiar, while showcasing some wonderfully intricate acoustic guitar work.
‘Whistle down the Wind’ is a really fine, exquisitely crafted album by an artist who still has much to say. The strength of the album lies not just in the songs but in the performances. If ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ leaves you eager to research the catalogues of the songwriters included here then you’ll be effectively paying it forward while keeping the music alive for future generations. If any of these songwriters enjoy a fraction of the career of Joan Baez I’m sure they will feel blessed.
‘Whistle down the Wind’ is released March 2nd on the Proper Records label and is very highly recommended.