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Joan Baez remains more than the song

The singer-songwriter, who performs tonight at UCLA, has found a new intimacy in her music and her life.

February 19, 2009|Randy Lewis

If all the stars had aligned for her, Joan Baez would have come away from this year's Grammy Awards with the first recording academy trophy of her long and distinguished career. She was nominated for her critically lauded album "Day After Tomorrow," a sparsely produced collection of pointed and illuminating songs by contemporary writers including Steve Earle (who produced it), Patty Griffin, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Eliza Gilkyson.

As it happened, Baez, along with Ry Cooder, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, had the misfortune of being nominated in the contemporary folk/Americana category with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, whose "Raising Sand" superstar collaboration turned into the unstoppable juggernaut of this year's Grammy ceremony.

But Baez, who plays a UCLA Live concert tonight at Royce Hall in Westwood, always has set her sights on loftier goals than music industry awards, and to her 68-year-old eyes and ears, "Day After Tomorrow" doesn't need any additional validation.

"Most people seem to have gotten the feeling of what we intended to do," Baez said by phone recently from the home outside San Francisco, which she shares with her 95-year-old mother. "We took songs that sound as though they were written a long time ago and we made them feel contemporary."

There's the internal spiritual confidence of Earle's "God Is God," Costello and T Bone Burnett's haunting portrait of unbridled power, "Scarlet Tide," and the Waits-Kathleen Brennan title tune, a song that takes the form of a heartbreaking letter from a soldier in Iraq.

Earle stripped away all the sonic sweetness that's often been applied to Baez's heavenly soprano voice, opting for a dry aural ambience that resulted in one of the most intimate recordings of her career.

"What was daunting was that this particular engineer wanted me to be one-quarter of an inch from the mike," she said. "He would keep coming into the booth and saying, 'Can you get a little closer?' I couldn't get any closer without bumping my nose into it."

Since the album came out last fall, Baez has been weaving the new songs into her concert set lists, even though she might easily, and comfortably, assemble several nights' worth of music from material she recorded decades earlier.

"Sometimes you feel people just itching to get to the songs they came to hear," Baez said. "But, with this thing, people are very attentive. It's a record I'm really very pleased with . . . I'm being cautious," she added with a little laugh. "I'm delighted with it."

The same could be said of her reaction to the election of Barack Obama.

"I was a big Barack Obama supporter from the beginning," she said, noting that during George W. Bush's administration, "for a number of years I haven't sung the really blunt protest songs. When Bush came into office the second time around, I started singing things like [Bob Dylan's] 'With God on Our Side' again, because we needed them. Now I could even do some of those old songs in that sense of joy, that sea change that this election represents."

Baez seems to keep her focus closer to home these days, on her mother and her own children. From her nonagenarian mother, "I'm studying to see how to get old." And with her son, she's made an attempt to make up for some of the time she felt she lost when she was often in the spotlight as one of the leaders of the political and social protest movement.

"I spend a lot of time with them when I'm home, because I didn't spend that time with them in the '60s and '70s when I was doing everything else," she said. "I had a talk with my son one time and told him 'I feel guilty for not being around so much when you were growing up.'

"He said, 'Look, it was an important time in the world, and you played a key role. Don't sweat it,' " Baez said. "That was so nice of him. . . . What a beautiful gift."

--

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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