For the New Joan Baez, a Focus On Career As Well As Causes


Baez is back. The barefoot balladeer, dubbed ``Queen of Folk'' on the cover of Time magazine in 1961, has a new manager, a new band, a new album, and a self-proclaimed ``new attitude for the '90s.'' That means she is spending as much time on herself, her music, and her act as she has poured into the peace causes and sometimes controversial liberal politics that she says have always been the moving forces in her life. Her new approach involves taking all the organizational and marketing steps needed to get and keep her name in front of audiences.

Music critics say her trademark fluttering soprano - after 10 years of voice training - is as good if not better than when she was winning eight gold albums. Once considered the conscience of a generation by many, she continues to hold up a mirror to the political scene in new songs about China, El Salvador, and the homeless.

All this just in time for Ms. Baez to celebrate 30 years of singing with a national tour that began earlier this month in Palo Alto, Calif., and ends 30 one-night-stands in New York City. In an interview here before the tour began, Baez talked about her new album with collaborators Paul Simon, the Gipsy Kings, Jackson Browne - and what to expect from her concerts.

``Do I deserve to be heard? ... Oh absolutely, more so than most,'' she says, her brown eyes glinting as brightly as the half-dozen silver bracelets jangling from her deeply-tanned forearms. The statement comes with a wink but also with over-the-shoulder awareness of other 1960s acts that have been making or planning tours: the Doobie Brothers, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, Paul McCartney.

`I'M different. I can't do rock-and-roll, and they can't do what I do,'' she says. ``There are very few people who can do what I do. I don't know any, do you?''

It's easy to find observers who agree.

``She is still the standard-bearer for what is loosely termed `folk' in this country,'' says Peyton Mays, music director of KEZX radio in Seattle, a station that does not cater to teenage listeners. Mr. Mays more comfortably puts Baez's new sound under the ``new folk''-rock umbrella, with performers like Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, and Christine Lavin. ``Her voice is as true as ever, one of the clearest, most perfect voices in the world.''

Mays and others say that, after achieving fame as a folk singer in the '60s and segueing into rock with people like Bob Dylan, Baez lost her way in the late '70. They fault record labels for trying to push her too much into what he calls the ``pop/fluff'' category. But with a return to folk/rock and with new compositions geared to social causes - evident in songs on the two-year-old album ``Recently'' and the just-released ``Speaking of Dreams'' - Baez has re-emerged as a significant artist.

``Her two recent albums show a great range of great new music that also stays within the famous Baez tradition of dealing with things going on in the world, as opposed to alot of writers who are trying to escape from the world,'' says Paul Zollo, editor of Songtalk, the bi-monthly magazine of the National Academy of Songwriters.

There had been an eight-year hiatus from 1979 to 1987, when Baez was without any label. Now with Gold Castle Records, a new label that has signed other ``mature'' folk artists such as Peter, Paul, and Mary, Baez says she fits in nicely with the label's philosophy of letting artists grow at their own pace without constant pressure to turn out hits.

`I ASKED my vocal coach how long I had, if I didn't become a drug addict and did my voice exercises every morning, and he said 10 years. So suddenly I have this decade in front of me, and I want to do justice to my greatest gift of all - my voice.''

Backing up this voice, she says, will involve more instruments than fans are used to. ``For years and years I toured only with a piano player. Then we added a guitar for one tour,'' she explains. ``That's not enough to do justice to my new music [from ``Speaking of Dreams''].

``This album has the complete range of the Baez experience from pure folk, to rhythm and blues to politics,'' says Songtalk's Zollo.

Besides the ``achingly pure soprano'' that won over Boston music critic Robert Shelton at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, the Baez experience is still underlined by a pinch of politics. That posture may best be known abroad these days. Baez has toured Central and South America, Europe, and the Middle East to crowds reaching 50,000 in Turkey.

In keeping with her philosophy of nonviolent activism nurtured by her Quaker upbringing, the current tour will not exclude signature Baez badinage on politics, humanity, and peace - though she insists the volume on diatribe has been turned down.

``[My] concerts have gotten less oppressive and aggressive in my speaking about issues,'' she says. ``I will say certain things if they are in my heart and my mind - even if I know the audience isn't going to want to hear it. I find that I am aggravated if I go to a concert and someone keeps talking.''

Audience attitudes have changed, she says. People aren't exactly sure what a pure folk singer is, and Baez says she feels uncomfortable at so-called ``folk festivals'': ``There are few [such festivals] around where people aren't trying to pretend to be living 25 years ago. They paint their faces and wear headbands and patchouli. I just feel I'm in another place and don't want to be relegated to that,'' she says.

What she does want to be relegated to, she adds, is continued relevance. ``This is a whole new mentality and commitment for me,'' she says. ``I've never been gifted organizationally. I've always been willing to commit myself to the starving people and political prisoners, but not to my own music and career. This is my attempt to put all the pieces together and really beat the pavement.''

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