Bowery Songs, the newest album from Joan Baez and her first live album in ten years, is a soaring chronicle of her 2003-2004 tour. The album was recorded in its entirety on the Saturday night after Election Day, November 2004, at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. From Joan’s opening acapella benediction, “Finlandia,” to her prophetic and telling versions of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and Steve Earle’s “Jerusalem” that close the album, there can be no mistaking the medium and the message she sought to capture.
One of the album’s centerpieces is Earle’s “Christmas In Washington” (“So come back Woody Guthrie/ Come back to us now…”), one of three ‘Bowery songs’ that originated on Joan’s most recent studio album Dark Chords On a Big Guitar (released in September 2003). The others are Greg Brown’s “Rexroth’s Daughter” (whose lyric gave the album its title) and Natalie Merchant’s “Motherland,” all of which have become staples in Joan’s repertoire.
The spirit of Woody Guthrie hovers throughout Bowery Songs. Joan has been singing “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)” since the 1960s, but this is her first live release of the song. Bob Dylan also figures in the program. “Farewell, Angelina” was the title tune of her 1965 LP that contained two Guthrie songs and four Dylan songs, one of which was “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Joan also assays Dylan’s “Seven Curses” of 1963, which was his free adaptation of the old Child ballad “The Maid Freed From the Gallows” aka “Anathea.” Another tune associated with Dylan and his mentor Dave Van Ronk is “Dink’s Song,” collected by Alan Lomax, which Joan sang with Bob on 1976’s Rolling Thunder Revue.
As on all of her previous live albums, Bowery Songs fulfills Joan’s objective of spanning as much of her career as possible – from “Silver Dagger” (the opening song of her first solo LP of 1960), “Jackaroe” (first heard on 1963’s In Concert Part 2, later to become a staple of the Grateful Dead’s songbook), and “Joe Hill” (sung by Joan at Woodstock), to the venerable Irish “Carrickfergus” (first heard on her 1989 album, Speaking Of Dreams) and the songs from 2003’s Dark Chords On a Big Guitar. Bowery Songs includes four songs that Joan has never recorded before: “Finlandia,” “Seven Curses,” “Dink’s Song,” and “Jerusalem.”
Bowery Songs reminds us that at crucial moments during her long and storied career – which is to say, at crucial moments in America’s history over the past four decades and then some – Joan has recorded and released live performance albums that have served as critical barometers of our times. 1963’s In Concert Part 1 and Part 2 LPs (Vanguard) were recorded during Joan’s first full-scale major cross-country tours, just three years into the start of her career in the heat of the Civil Rights movement and the nascent Free Speech and anti-war struggles, and in the blush of her early involvement with the music and soul of Bob Dylan.
A dozen years later, From Every Stage (A&M) was a verite recording that documented Joan’s summer tour of 1975 with a 4-piece band. The double-LP set a standard by including songs ‘from every stage’ of Joan’s career, from her earliest hymns, Civil Rights solidarity anthems, and Bob Dylan songs, to such contemporary crowd-pleasers as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Diamonds & Rust.”
During the 1980s, when Joan was free of any major label associations in the U.S., she released several live chronicles of her European tours. The first of these, European Tour (CBS) was an album that, once again, presented songs from the entire span of her career, with several foreign language titles. (Unreleased in America, the LP remains out-of-print.) Live Europe ’83: Children Of the Eighties (Ariola) continued the trend. Joan refined the concept for her next live album, 1989’s Diamonds And Rust In the Bullring (Gold Castle), recorded in Bilbao, Spain; the CD’s first six numbers were sung in English, followed by six in Spanish. Back in the U.S., her most recent live album was 1995’s Ring Them Bells (Guardian), an all-star affair recorded at the Bottom Line in New York, featuring collaborations with Mary Black, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Mimi Fariña, Tish Hinojosa, Janis Ian, Indigo Girls, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Dar Williams. Thus, the release of Bowery Songs is framed in rich tradition, capturing the work of an artist whose finest moments often happen onstage.