Joan Baez does a lousy Bob Dylan impression.
As the folk icon interpreted "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" Tuesday at Unity Temple on the Plaza, she sang a passage with Dylan's signature nasal twang. It didn't sound anything like Dylan, but the audience of about 500 cheerfully laughed anyway. It was one of the few moments of the sweetly nostalgic concert that wasn't close to perfect.
The hour-and-fifty-minute performance served as a satisfying, if inevitably incomplete, retrospective of Baez' remarkable life. She marched with Martin Luther King Jr., was romantically linked to Dylan and performed at Woodstock. Some fans consider her far more than an angelic folk singer. To many, she embodies the idealism of 1960s. Baez's critics write her off as a shrill and hopelessly naive activist.
While she remains immersed in various causes, Baez didn't do much proselyting Tuesday. After she offered a devastatingly sensitive reading of John Prine's "Hello In There," Baez composed herself as if she was about to deliver a lecture or a charitable plea. She told a bawdy joke instead.
Aside from dedicating Woody Guthrie's "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" to "all the undocumented workers in this country," she let the messages of the songs she selected speak for themselves.
She opened with Steve Earle's "God Is God" and closed with John Lennon's "Imagine," expansive songs that mirror Baez's world view. She initially made her reputation with impeccable renditions of traditional folk songs and that material figured prominently in her set list. Before she sang the spellbinding "John Riley," a song from her debut album, Baez, 69, reminded the audience that the recording was released 50 years ago. Readings of "Gospel Ship" and "Freight Train" were no less enchanting.
Story songs included the horse tale "Stewball," the captivating "Seven Curses," the haunting "Long Black Veil" and The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The latter song was a hit for Baez in 1971. A sublime reading of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" was the most successful love song on her set list. Her mischievous mocking of the song's author aside, "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" was expunged of its spitefulness while "Farewell, Angelina" teased out charm not apparent when delivered by Dylan.
Baez's singing, once a chaste trill, has grown duskier. Only during "House of the Rising Sun" did she employ the tremulous voice that characterized her early recordings. She now sounds tougher but no less tender. Her voice was so compelling that the harmonies of Dirk Powell, her sole accompanist, were an unwelcome intrusion. His contributions on fiddle, guitar, mandolin and keyboards, however, were exquisite.
Her refreshing sense of humor returned during "Diamonds and Rust." Baez changed the final line of her painfully personal song from "I've already paid" to "I will take the diamonds." The twist was as playful as it was unexpected. Baez may harbor romantic remorse, but her performance insured that Tuesday's audience had no regrets.