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Baez's serenity shines through

Joan Baez. Picture: Ian Munro/The West Australian

Joan Baez
Perth Concert Hall

REVIEW Ray Purvis

Joan Baez, dressed in an elegant black trouser suit and now silver haired at age 72, strolled on stage at the packed Perth Concert Hall on Friday night for the first of her two WA concerts and was greeted by rapturous applause from her devoted fans who have waited 25 years to see her perform in Australia.

Her opening numbers - God Is God, written by Steve Earle from her most recent album, followed by Phil Ochs' There But For Fortune that she recorded in 1964 - were flawlessly executed in the same finger- picking guitar style and distinctive clear voice that established her iconic status as the world's best-known female folk singer.

While in remarkably fine form and imbued with a worldly serenity, the piercing beauty of her higher notes has now deepened and weathered with age, which proved to be no less enchanting.

Accompanied by her low-key "small" band - talented multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell who switched from guitar, banjo, accordion and piano, and her son Gabriel Harris on percussion (mostly thumping a box drum) - her set list succeeded in touching as many corners of her considerable repertoire as was possible in the space of 90-odd minutes.

Besides the traditional folk ballads Joe Hill, Lily Of The West, Long Black Veil (played up-tempo C&W style with fiddle accompaniment) and House Of The Rising Sun, she paid tribute to her former lover Bob Dylan ("the man who wrote the best songs of our generation") with a selection of his songs - It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, Seven Curses and Blowin' In The Wind.

There was a strong reminder of her lifelong commitment to social activism when she sang a soulful version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and chatted about her association with Martin Luther King. Her version of Woody Guthrie's protest song Plane Wreck At Los Gatos (Deportees), about the death of 28 migrant farm workers while being deported from California back to Mexico, was just as haunting.

A nice touch of local flavour was an anecdote about her visit to Uluru, which was the source of inspiration for an unexpected version of Paul Kelly's From Little Things Big Things Grow. She later closed out the set with a stirring version of Eric Bogle's Aussie classic The Band Played Waltzing Matilda about the futility of war.

For the encore she was joined on stage by Australian folk singer Kate Fagan, who opened for her, to sing a mellow version of John Lennon's peace anthem Imagine and the more rollicking The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, that turned into a sing-along infused with 60s spirit.