Wednesday, September 30, 2015
Joan Baez in San Francisco - Joan Baez
Fantasy Records 5015
It is amusing to me that one of my favorite Joan Baez albums is the one she sued to prevent from being released. In her lawsuit against Fantasy Records the album is described as a "poor quality and tasteless record" that damaged her reputation. I beg to differ. I don't blame her for being mad, the record is obviously a rip-off and a shameless bit of record company chicanery. Despite that, the album is often quite enjoyable. It was recorded in 1958 when Baez was 17. I mistakenly believed it was a live album when I bought it, but it was actually a demo recorded in a studio. It features an eclectic bunch of songs, more diverse than most of her Vanguard albums. My favorites are the two rock and roll songs on the record, covers of the Coasters' "Young Blood" and the Midnighters' "Annie Had a Baby." Throughout her career I've never found Baez's sporadic efforts to sing rock to be convincing, she just sounds too uptight and stilted. Perhaps because of her youth, she sounds more relaxed, even happy on these cuts. I've always found her to be humorless to a fault, but these two songs are funny and she plays up their humor. "Annie Had a Baby" is the better of the two. Baez sings in a low voice and a southern accent and distorts the words like a rockabilly singer. Of course it is ridiculous but I still love it and I'm sorry it is so short. She sings "Young Blood" in her normal voice although she lowers her voice for the lines sung by the back-up singers in the Coasters' version. She whoops and hollers her way through the song and I adore her for it. I've heard a bunch of her albums and there is nothing like this on any of them. Unfortunately the rest of the album is not nearly as fun. Her version of "La Bamba" comes close. It is energetic but her Spanish sounds exaggerated, like she is showing off in Spanish class. Baez was a big fan of Harry Belafonte as a teenager and she does three of his songs which are among the best tracks on the record. My favorite is her cover of "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" which she sings in a silly Caribbean accent that I find utterly charming. She tones down the accent for "Island in the Sun" which is pleasant and light. On "Scarlet Ribbons" she sings in her normal voice which is of course lovely. She also covers Merle Travis' country classic "Dark as a Dungeon" which I like as well. She sings it beautifully as you'd expect, but she also sounds loose, responding to the song rather than forcing her will upon it. The rest of the album sounds more like her early Vanguard albums, traditional folk songs and spirituals delivered with that perfect soprano voice. My favorite of the bunch is her take on the old work song "Told My Captain" which is restrained and moody. "Every Night" is generally known as "Every Night When The Sun Goes In." I like the song but her vocal lacks sufficient feeling to put it over. "Water Boy" is another work song often associated with Odetta who was a big influence on Baez as a teen. Again I find the song lacking in feeling. "Oh Freedom" was also a song Odetta performed and it is the one song from this album that Baez kept in her repertoire. It is a very stirring song, but she performed it much better later in her career. The old English folk song "I Gave My Love a Cherry" would easily fit on her first album. She sings it flawlessly as if she were singing a hymn and I find the song lifeless and dull. My least favorite cut. Nonetheless this is a remarkable record for a 17 year old. Baez's magnificent voice was already fully developed and she unleashed it freely with impressive force. Her lack of maturity is most evident in her inconsistent ability to bring out the depth and feeling in the songs. Too often she sounds like she is imitating someone's record without connecting to the words. It is hardly embarrassing though, I wish some of the youthful exuberance and sense of fun displayed on this recording had carried over to her mature career. Recommended to fans of Carolyn Hester.