Given how Baez has been a folk mainstay for more than 55 years, the past unavoidably comes into play during her performances. To that end, her 90-minute outing at the Lexington Opera House did not disappoint. Baez delved back to her self-titled 1960 debut album early into the program for a version of Silver Dagger that sounded suitably sagely but still lovingly devoted to the tune’s traditional folk roots. But just a few songs earlier, Baez summoned Steve Earle’s God is God, a restless contemplation of faith (“Never seen a line in the sand or a diamond in the dust”) the singer recorded as recently as 2008.
Performing the tune alone onstage shortly before employing a trio (and, eventually, a quartet), Baez was suddenly the regal elder, a folk empress still filled with a world weariness as beautiful and pensive as when Silver Dagger gleamed anew.
Remarkably fit and vigorous in appearance, Baez didn’t possess the tireless vibrato or the sheer vocal might she exhibited in decades past. But with very few exceptions, that didn’t matter. The show opening version of Lily of the West, first cut by Baez on her second album in 1961, looked to spell trouble by sending the singer into upper registers she clearly struggled with (the folk tune’s references to Louisville and Lexington likely explained its inclusion in the setlist). But Baez quickly adjusted, sending a quietly potent and eerily relevant take on Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are-A-Changin’ into a lower, more easily sustained range.
From there Baez sifted through the years with a group that included the acclaimed roots music multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell. There were tunes by folk forefathers (Dylan, Woody Guthrie), established torchbearers (Earle, Paul Simon, Richard Thompson) and even some surprising neo-pop sources (Antony and the Johnsons’ tribal-esque global warming anthem Another World).
It was another Earle composition, Jerusalem, that seemed to best bridge the past and present. Penned in 2002, the song is a prayer for peace in a world rattled by intolerance.
Performed only with Powell’s accompaniment on piano, the song presented a more internalized voice from Baez that bore the weight and, amazingly, hope, of age. It was a quieter show of strength amid the unchanging — and often unflattering — temperament of the times.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com