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JOAN BAEZ - The Complete Gold Castle Masters

ARTIST - The Complete Gold Castle Masters
Proper Records PRPCD141

There is a guy who comes on my TV regularly imploring me to buy British gold sovereigns. Judging by his accent, the UK is a good 3,000 miles away from his home: and I need to tell him he is missing the gold sovereign that is right under his own nose.

To be more precise, the sovereign I refer to, is the Queen of American Folk, Ms Joan Baez, and the gold is represented here by three albums she made in the 80s for Danny Goldberg’s ill-fated Gold Castle label. The CDs never quite got the prominence they deserved, due to well below-par promotion due to under-funding. Things culminated in the label going belly-up in 1992.

These albums have now been a quarter of a century in limbo, too important to be deleted, but with nobody thinking of re-issuing. But now, Proper Records has dusted them down, added some bonus tracks, and also followed Joan's original wishes that certain versions should make the final cut, and restored them to their rightful place.

If that was not enough, the three albums are now presented in a handsome triptych Digipak-style case housing the three CDs: so attractive that will make someone a most appealing birthday present.

And the discs are accompanied with a most informative set of liner notes largely penned by Arthur Levy: notes that answered all the questions I could think of, plus a goodly number I could not!

The three albums are probably equal in quality, though that is not to say that I enjoyed them all equally. The third CD – Speaking Of Dreams – is by some distance my favourite, where she is joined by such luminaries as Paul Simon and Jackson Browne...not to mention The Gypsy Kings. The second CD – Diamonds And Rust In The Bullring - is I guess my least favourite, but hey, that’s no doubt due to my own linguistic shortcomings (the last half dozen tracks are not in English). That said, the opening bars of the title song never fail to put that frisson through me. As for the first CD of the three – Recently – I recall being underwhelmed by this album when it came out. Yes, she does a fine job with Mark Knopfler’s Brothers In Arms as an opener, but there are too many songs here that don’t cut the mustard. One has to be a genius to find an indifferent song from that fine songwriter Jimmy Webb, but Joan did here with his intriguingly titled The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress...a song that alas never quite lived up to its promising name. And her passionate delivery of Peter Gabriel’s anthemic Biko was fine up to a point, but – and here’s a big “but” – that song will forever be somehow unfavourably compared in my mind to Tom Paxton’s quite magnificent The Death Of Stephen Biko dating from around the same time. A song that gained a fraction of the worldwide fame of the Gabriel number, but told the dreadful story so much more tellingly and gut-wrenchingly.

There is MLK by U2...gee, if ever a great man deserved better, it was here. Dr King was worthy of a song that climbed the mountain: this song only got me climbing the walls at its relative vacuity. Ex-Steely Dan member David Palmer’s Lebanon was recorded at the original sessions, but did not make the final cut. It is included here as a bonus track, but one can easily see why it was previously unreleased. It is a deeply serious song on the descent into the hellish civil war that gripped that country from the mid Seventies. But decent job though she does with it, it similarly didn’t stretch this great vocalist, and lacks true memorability: frankly, St Joan (yes, she’s a saint in my eyes) was never the best judge of other people’s material...even if she was often the best deliverer of their songs in question.

But enough of my nit-picking. Let’s cut to the quick. Would I buy this re-issue?

I think, the answer is yes, but only because I have been enchanted by this woman ever since I first saw her perform back in September 1965 at the RFH. That imperious soprano voice: every bit as impressive as a Jessye Norman or a Leontyne Price. And here she is joined by sensationally good musicians throughout, with the extraordinary Laythan Armor just dazzling on keyboards. What a player! I observe from the liner notes that he was regarded as her secret weapon: he had been almost totally unknown, and discovered whilst playing at a church service.

One final observation from me. Joan says in the liner notes regarding Txoria Txori, and I quote her “The song in Catalan is about a sweet little bird”.

It may well be about a sweet little bird, Joan, but I will eat my hat if it is in Catalan. I think you will find it is in Euskara, the everyday language of most of the population of Bilbao, where you were singing it in their bullring, with the audience joining in. Amazing how nobody has spotted this howler before publication of the liner notes! You can post my brownie points to me Joan.

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 119 of The Living Tradition magazine.