How does a legend stay current in the ever-changing world of music? That's been the challenge for Joan Baez, the undisputed diva of folk music-with-a-conscience, but it's a challenge she has embraced. Baez and her four-piece band make a stop at the Met on Tuesday after spending a couple of months touring the U.K. with her latest release, Dark Chords on a Big Guitar.
Baez took the finely tuned sense of justice that she learned from her Quaker parents and set it to music, defining the soundtrack for the merger of pop music and political activism in the 1960s and '70s. Early in her career, she lent her clear soprano to traditional songs and the tunes of up-and-coming songwriters in the Boston-Cambridge coffeehouse folkie scene. Among the emerging performers to benefit from the exposure was a young unknown from Minnesota named Bob Dylan, and they went on to a much-publicized -- yet relatively short -- relationship.
Later, Baez took a swing toward Nashville, scoring one of her biggest hits with a cover of the Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in 1971. Her own songwriting moved to the fore in the mid-1970s with "Diamonds and Rust," recalling her days with Dylan. After focusing more on politics and less on music during the 1980s, she began to explore the work of songwriters a generation or two younger, performers like the Indigo Girls and Mary-Chapin Carpenter, bringing her name and her own inimitable style to their songs.
For the past decade, Baez has continued to highlight the work of lesser-known and emerging musicians in her albums, and Dark Chords on a Big Guitar is no exception. The album features two songs each by Greg Brown and the team of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, along with the powerful "Motherland" by Natalie Merchant.
Inland Northwest listeners will recognize the places and images in "Wings," a haunting and impressionistic view of the changes seen in this land since the arrival of the Black Robes, written by Moscow-born songwriter Josh Ritter. Baez and Ritter performed together a few times during the recent tour of the U.K., where he continues to have great success.
"It's not an overtly political album, but it couldn't be a cheerful album in these times," Baez told a KGSR radio interviewer in San Francisco last summer. "It wasn't planned to be dark. But my suspicion is that we reflect the times in one way or another."
Perhaps the closest thing to a direct political statement comes from Steve Earle's song, "Christmas in Washington," a plaintive call for a return to the days of activism and an evocation of folk music's legendary plainspoken man with a guitar:
So come back Woody Guthrie / Come back to us now / Tear your eyes from paradise / and return again somehow / If you run into Jesus / Maybe he can help you out / Come back Woody Guthrie to us now.
The song captures this moment in this country, a time of unease and fear, and yet a time when spirits of the past -- Guthrie, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King -- may yet inspire a new generation to stand up and speak out. It's also a fitting metaphor for Baez's career, linking the traditions embodied by Woody Guthrie with the new breed of songwriters working today.
Get in the Van, Punk -- That's right -- get in the van. And hit the road. Well, before you do that, I suppose you better get your grubby meat hooks on one, yeah? The van, that is, that staple of DIY touring, that infernal hotbox of cigarettes and body stink, that conveyor of your most precious cargo: your gear. Where would lean, hungry and cash-strapped young bands be without one? That's right, in nowheresville, baby, bored out of their collective skulls playing for the same unappreciative locals night after night. The band touring van is a workhorse that serves many a purpose and satisfies many a need. It's transportation. It's a fortress. It's a clubhouse. It's where you sleep. It's your home away from home. It's your ticket to cross-country gigging.
In the interest of creating a buzz among local bands and injecting a little live music spice into your Wednesday nights, the B-Side's Ben Cater has whipped up a battle of the bands contest the likes of which I've never encountered. What makes this one so special? Why the van, of course.
"We are having a band contest with the winners receiving a touring van," says Cater. "In addition to that, I'll be booking the winners a five-city tour in the Northwest."
Bands will be judged on musicianship, originality, stage presence and crowd support. And before it's awarded to the lucky winning band, the van will be custom painted by the noble crew at Tiger Tattoo. That is, once Cater actually lands one.
"The van has not been obtained yet," he says simply.
The contest kicked off on Wednesday, March 3, with the Dee Farmin Army, Riverside and Curiosity Shop. (Please don't expect me to reveal who won because as I write this, the show hasn't even happened yet.)
Co-sponsored by United Groove Merchants, Tiger Tattoo, Southside Boards and this very newspaper, the B-Side's Battle for the Van will span a 14-week period and include something like 30 local original acts with styles that run the gamut of rock sub-genres. Name your poison, because all of your favorite flavors are here somewhere: punk, metal, fusion, ska, new wave, no wave, blues rock, weird rock courtesy of Anomoly, Detox, the Longnecks and Scatterbox (on 3/10); Pathos, Piss and Jupiter Effect (on 3/17); Kevin, After Eyes Are Gone, the Federales and Badfish (on 3/24); Lucid, Mang, Horrible D and the Shirkers (on 3/31); Dubsac, Creeps, the Side Project and Ten Minutes Down (on 4/7). And that's just the beginning. Watch these pages or go to www.thebsideonline.com for updates and probable eventual photos of that most coveted of all contest prizes: the van.
And hey, all you bands -- there's still time to sign up.
Rock Venue Resurrection -- There is a movement afoot to bring the rock back to Gatsby's. That's right, Gatsby's. Not Chili D's, not Johnny Rockets, not even Club Say What. But Gatsby's, a venue that for three decades was the place to experience rock music that was live and loud.
Until very recently, owners George and Dorreen Mashtare were operating the venue as the teen-oriented Club Say What. That all changed when the liquor license came through. Now, in an effort to return the venerable space to the gory glory of its golden age, the Mashtares are re-christening it with the Gatsby's moniker -- the name pretty much everyone around town uses to describe it anyway. The Gatsby's grand (re)opening show takes place this Saturday, March 6, with local favorites Five Foot Thick and Ambeo, along with buzzworthy Seattle rockers Point Defiance.
"It's a great room," says promoter Joe Gingerella, president of the Show Media, the company handling the booking at Gatsby's. "And the sound system is awesome."
Gatsby's beefy stage and cavernous, multi-level interior makes it an ideal rock venue. It holds somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 guests, the perfect size for top-shelf touring acts that might nevertheless have a tough time filling the Met or the Big Easy. And people around here certainly respond to that name.
"The thing that's so great about it is, if you've been around Spokane for awhile, you know about Gatsby's," says Gingerella. "Everybody remembers that room. And when they hear about it, they'll go and check it out. And if they like it, they'll be back."
Gingerella is betting that people are going to like it. His company, the Show Media, has been promoting concerts in the Northwest, California and Nevada for more than 20 years. Gingerella has also worked from the inside of the music business with such talent as Korn, Alien Ant Farm, Slayer, the Color Red and Amen.
"There's a lot of stuff that comes through your area that just passes through because there's no place to play. The kind of stuff that would play at the Big Easy if it wasn't already booked. There are a lot of bigger acts that we can actually squeeze in there pretty easily."
Shows already booked for the near future include L.A. Guns, Chinatown and Peepshow (March 13), Lynch Mob and Point Defiance (March 17), the Dre Allen project and Kelly Moneymaker (March 18), and the Creeps, Mang, Jet City Fix and Dollar Store Cowboys (March 19). Visit www.theshowmedia.com for more info.