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In concert: Joan Baez and Steve Earle at The Music Center at Strathmore

steve earleSteve Earle's politics don't get in the way of good songs. (All photos by Kyle Gustafson/FTWP)

By Dave McKenna

Wednesday's double-bill at Strathmore had as many left turns as the Daytona 500, as liberal legend Joan Baez and the younger but similarly opinionated Steve Earle doled out traditional and late-model American folk music.

Earle, appearing solo and playing a variety of acoustic instruments, laid out the evening's agenda early in his opening set with his "Christmas in Washington," with its many shout-outs to progressive icons - Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, and Malcolm X among them. He told the crowd that he was originally inspired to write "Devil's Right Hand" - chorus: "Mama says a pistol is the devil's right hand!" - after his young son hid a loaded gun in the house, but that it's meaning changed over time. "Now it's a gun control song!" he said. He discussed his long run as an anti-death penalty activist before "Ellis Unit 1," a tune he wrote for the film "Dead Man Walking."

But Earle's lib lobbying never obscured his amazing melodic gifts, and his set list showed not all of his causes are political. Highlights came with the brilliant "Someday," his small-town-as-prison gem, and "Galway Girl," as he banged on a mandolin and sang of the beauty of Irish women. That's a message that unites, not divides.

joan baez

Baez, who looks divine at 69, opened her portion of the show with the solemn "God Is God," a song mulling the powerlessness of humanity that was written recently for her by Earle. She played to her faithful followers by covering Woody Guthrie's brutal ballad about the death of migrant workers, "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)," as well as "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" by her mentor with benefits, Bob Dylan. She, like Earle, often went for laughs, throwing a really good Dylan impersonation into the last verse. (She's been doing that same bit forever, but it still kills.)

Baez brought Earle out at night's end for a duet on "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Her 1971 cover of the Band's tune gave Baez the biggest single of her career. All these years later its sympathetic view of those who fought for the Confederacy seems more controversial than when she first sang it, and conflicts with her and Earle's image. But, as both artists know, a great folk song is a great folk song.

joan baez

joan baez

joan baez

steve earle

steve earle

steve earle

By Click Track  | October 28, 2010; 1:45 PM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags:  Joan Baez, Steve Earle  
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While I agree with most of your review -- both performers were excellent and Joan does look amazing for 69 -- I do think you miss the points of Joan Baez's choice of "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down." The first is to make the point that war has a devastating impact on everyone, regardless of side. The second is to underscore the fact that history, to be fully understood, must be seen from the side of the vanquished as well as the victor. Superficially, it may seem at odds with her politics and that of Steve Earle. But deep down, it is yet another manifestation of her absolute dislike of war. Thank you for the otherwise excellent and, I think, accurate review.

Posted by: neilbomberg | October 28, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Earle's performance was excruciating, singing the same song for an hour. He should leave song writing to the experts. Joan Baez's voice was hoarse, as if she had a cold. She's still wonderful, though.

Posted by: stiffman-rosenthal | October 29, 2010 7:38 AM | Report abuse

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