Joan Baez is about to embark on her final world tour. I guess that after more than fifty years of music and activism she has earned the right to kick back for a while. I’d like to think that Whistle Down The Wind won’t be her last album, however. I hope there is still some gas left in the tank. At 77, her voice is still sweet and strong but if you’re hoping for a full-on political treatise, and heaven knows we’re in need of one, you’ll be disappointed. I have no firm information on Joan’s band here but it’s safe to assume that multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell and percussionist Gabriel Harris are in the line-up.
The first two songs lean a little towards the radio-friendly which is surprising given that ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ is penned by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Of course, it doesn’t sound anything like it did on Bone Machine – here it’s given a big sweeping arrangement – but I suppose it’s an expression of restlessness – perhaps a signal to anyone who would write Joan off. Josh Ritter’s ‘Be Of Good Heart’ is next, built on a rich acoustic guitar and minimal bass and percussion. It’s not one of his best known songs but nice enough.
With Anthony And The Johnsons’ ‘Another World’, the album takes off. The song is based on stripped down percussive guitar and it’s about…ecological concerns, the desire for the next life? It is nicely ambiguous. ‘Civil War’, written by producer Joe Henry is intriguing. On the surface, it’s about civilians becoming soldiers in the civil war but beneath that it’s a personal story. ‘The Things That We Are Made Of’ is, I guess, a moving-on song and then we come to Zoe Mulford’s wonderful ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’ with big piano chords giving it real grandeur. I had the great good fortune to hear Zoe sing this on stage a few weeks ago and I can’t help contrast the song with Trump’s take on the latest school massacre. If you’re looking for a political song; here it is but it’s real life that has made it so.
Joan returns to Waits and Brennan with ‘Last Leaf’, an unambiguous railing against aging. Fortunately, there are a few leaves left on the tree and Tom and Joan are among them. Ritter’s ‘Silver Blade’ harks back to Joan’s early days. It’s no relative of ‘Silver Dagger’ but it sounds very much like a reworked traditional ballad of the sort that made Joan famous. Eliza Gilkyson provides another political song in the shape of ‘The Great Correction’ which is also a companion piece to ‘Another World’ and finally we have Tim Eriksen’s retelling of ‘I Wish That The Wars Were All Over’. Once a traditional British song, it encapsulates both the style of Joan’s early repertoire and one of her enduring concerns.
Whistle Down The Wind succeeds in looking back and looking to the future and it needs time to settle into your consciousness. I do hope that Joan will be back, though.
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‘Last Leaf’ – live: