Monday, October 4, 2010

Rare, Live And Classic Is Going To Stay That Way For All But The Die-hards!

The Good: Good vocals, Some moments of creativity
The Bad: A lot of tracks that are not up to par.
The Basics: A disappointing collection of musical bits from the career of Joan Baez, Rare, Live And Uncut makes a great argument for discrimination in what is released by a musical artist.

Sometimes, I like to truly delve into a boxed set and explore all that it has to offer and relate that experience to my readers. I did that, for example, with the Bob Dylan boxed set Biograph and with the Peter, Paul And Mary anthology Carry It On. Yes, it seems the only time I get in the multidisc boxed sets are when they are for Folk artists . . . anyway, I cannot recall one I wanted to write about less than the Joan Baez boxed set Rare, Live and Classic. Joan Baez was my August Artist Of The Month and I suspect I enjoyed the booklet more than the three discs of music.

So, in a rarity for me, here’s a short review of a big product and what it boils down to is that Rare, Live And Classic is a novelty item for the most obsessed Joan Baez fans only. The three-disc set is packed with obscure outtakes, songs and dialogue clips which replay terribly poorly and are pretty much only for those who simply are looking for a Joan Baez album. Instead, this set is for the academics and those with far too much money in their wallet. It is not a cohesive collection and some of the tracks are little more than outtakes and for some, the improvisations do not work nearly as well as the artist might have intended.

With sixty tracks spread over three c.d.s and occupying over three hours of music, Rare, Live and Classic is a disappointing anthology of music, much of which is simply performed by Joan Baez with other folk singers. Of the sixty songs, she only wrote ten and arranged another eighteen from classical folk songs. Despite a pretty stunning number of collaborations – eighteen of the songs are duets or trios – most of the lead vocals on this set are performed by Joan Baez. She also plays her guitar on virtually every track. Joan Baez was interviewed for the booklet that comes with this three-disc set.

Rare, Live And Classic features a lot of Folk music, which is pretty much Joan Baez (and often a friend) on her guitar. The songs are not musically imaginative and for several of the classic Folk songs that Baez arranged, they sound like what I’ve always heard them as, so her reinventions of them – like “Scarlet Ribbons” and “We Are Crossing Jordan” – have largely become the standards for how the songs are performed by folk singer. Most of the songs are very simple songs, so they may be easily learned and the musical range of them is pretty much expressed through a lone guitar. Songs like “House Of The Rising Sun” have a much more stripped-down sound than the later, popular music version of the same song.

Even so, Rare, Live And Classic is musically fairly unimaginative. Baez presents the Janis Ian song “Jesse” with little musical differentiation between hers and the original. And some of the songs are little more than outtakes. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is presented with almost no musical accompaniment and “Amazing Grace” is the same way. What makes “Amazing Grace” fail so spectacularly is the fact that Baez’s concert recording of it guts any emotional resonance the song might have. Baez leads the audience in it, speeding through each line almost as a spoken word, before singing the same line with the audience. The problem is, she seems to keep about the same tempo as a traditional version of it, so the spoken portions are sped through annoyingly and with equal annoyance the listener hears the condensed up-tempo version of the same line sung almost as amelodically.

This brings us to the vocals. Joan Baez largely sings with clear, crisp vocal performances that can bring a tear to the eyes of the listeners. Her version of “Forever Young” has a sad, sweet quality to it that accents Bob Dylan’s lines perfectly. Baez largely stays in the alto and soprano registers and she is a master of both with a fair ability to leap between the two or traverse through them as needed.

But Rare, Live And Classic is not the best series of examples of her vocals, either. She stumbles through “Auctioneer” with Bill Wood and the duets with Bob Dylan “Troubled And I Don’t Know Why” and “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind” are both vocally sloppy. The discs are filled with similar songs where Baez is not performing up to snuff and many of her lines are frequently obscured as she or her vocal partner makes a flub.

Ultimately, that’s all the energy I have to write about this boxed set. It is big, bulky and the notes on each song are usually more interesting than the songs themselves. Unless one has a high tolerance for watching things like gag reels over and over again, Rare, Live And Classic is not the album collection for you: frequently that is all this collection of cuts from different times in Joan Baez’s life actually is.

For other works by Joan Baez, please check out my reviews of:
The First Ten Years
Baez Sings Dylan
Ring Them Bells


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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