Songstress still ruffles feathers

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This is not Joan Baez’s natural habitat. The wood-panelled library of the French ambassador’s residence in Kensington Palace Gardens is a far cry from that “crummy hotel overlooking Washington Square”. But Baez’s less-than-diplomatic comments on the Bush administration prove that she has not joined the establishment quite yet. The ambassador has been a friend since they met at an Amnesty benefit in San Francisco. What she loves about staying here is the chance, in the heart of London, to be close to nature: overlooking Kensington Park, birds feeding on her window ledge.

More than anyone, Baez embodies the 1960s, in all their idealism and their mingling of the personal and the political. She is now 66; next year, she will have been performing for 50 years. Famously, she was briefly but intensely Bob Dylan’s lover and on-stage partner and many of his songs remain in her repertoire. Her career has entwined music and politics, and the Iraq war has redoubled her urgency. “Gandhi said that there were two sides to human nature, good and bad, and it’s much more difficult to organise the good side. That’s what my job has been. When I retire, I’ll be very happy with being known as a non-violent activist and a singer. In whatever order.”

The first role saw her briefly imprisoned in 1967 for aiding the draft resistance movement. “We had one silent sit-in, which terrified the guards. It terrified me too – I panic about tear gas. Eventually they came to get us. I went limp and was dragged through the whole dorm and into a holding cell. It wasn’t as bad as I expected. Reality never is as bad as you expect.”

She still ruffles feathers. This April, she was barred from joining John Mellencamp to sing for injured soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “It raised a conflict of feelings for me. I would not go into a war zone and sing for the troops because that would prep them up. But if you see the vets now who need help and never get any, it’s the saddest thing. So playing for them would have been all right by me. Anyway, two or three days before, they told me they didn’t have time to process my application. My reputation precedes me and that’s not a bad thing.”

Baez now concentrates on her family. Her sister, Mimi, died in 2001 and her father, Albert, this year, but her mother now lives with her. She has a 37-year-old son, Gabe. “Do-gooders, if they don’t look inside themselves, can be terrible to their children. My two mentors were like that. Ira Sandperl was ghastly with his kids. Jeanetta Sagan [the founder of Amnesty USA] neglected what was right in front of her. I was like that too. My son gets fed up with this. He says: ‘Mom, your guilt is really icky for me.’ ”

Maintaining her celebrated three-octave soprano is increasingly hard work. “For the first 20 years, I didn’t have to do anything. Then I discovered I was mortal. So I have voice coaching. If I went into the lower register of my voice, I’d be okay. But I don’t want to do that. My voice coach says: ‘My dear, didn’t you know? Eventually gravity takes over everything.’ ”

With a couple of shining exceptions, Baez’s songs are other writers’ material. “I haven’t written anything for about 15 years. It became difficult and I don’t like to do anything difficult I don’t have to do. Vocal exercises I have to do. Songwriting I don’t.” So she has worked with younger songwriters (Dylan, she notes, was “six months younger”) such as the Indigo Girls. “They called me the matriarch. I called them young whippersnappers.”

She will record a new album later this year, with Steve Earle producing. “The hub of the whole thing is Tom Waits’s song, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. It’s an anti-war song. It speaks to people in a way that nothing else is at the moment.” We talk about why so few anthems have emerged from Iraq. “It took a while in the 1960s as well; we don’t know what’s germinating now. And there are lots of good songs, there’s just nothing like ‘Blowing in the Wind’. Bob – this stuff just came through him. I don’t know if it was even there in his head before it poured out.”

The following day, Baez is on stage at the Anvil in Basingstoke, poised on an oriental rug. In a black suit and white shirt, with a green pashmina slung round her shoulders, she has the mien of a bullfighter.

She is accompanied for half the set by three much younger musicians. “Momma’s waiting,” she chides them when they are slow to return after one of her solo interludes. They recast “El Preso Numero Nueve” as Mexican alt-country, and give a fast country shuffle to “Lily of the West”. But alone with an acoustic guitar, Baez still shines. On “Sweet Sir Galahad”, her own composition about Mimi and her second husband, Milan Melvin, her high vibrato quivers like an arrow striking its target.

The concert mixes old stalwarts and newer material. There are old ballads – “Fennario” sounding more like the 1860s than even the 1960s. There is mountain music, “a fundamentalist Christian song without the meanness to it”. There is Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, an Appalachian-tinged reading of Elvis Costello’s “Scarlet Tide”, even a sweet version of Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World”.

And there are what she described to me as “the obligatory Dylan songs” although she conceded that audiences love to hear them, the band to play them and she to sing them. On “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word”, she drops for a verse into Dylan’s nasal wheeze. “I wasn’t having a vocal problem. That was an imitation of his nibs, Bob Dylan. I wonder if he does an imitation of me . . .”

The last encore is a solo “Diamonds and Rust”. In its recorded version, this clear-eyed look back at Dylan ends abruptly, a song about failure to find closure itself failing to find closure. Now she alters the last line to “if you’re offering me diamonds and rust/I’ll take the diamonds”, a kind of measured reconciliation.

Joan Baez plays on Monday at the Harrogate International Centre, on Tuesday at the Royal International Pavilion in Llangollen, then a series of dates in Germany, France and Spain before headlining the Cambridge Folk Festival on July 28

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