SOMERVILLE -- Regardless of what you think about her politics, Joan Baez remains an endearing, dignified presence onstage. With a beatific smile and a marathon history of songs, Baez shared her illuminating legacy with a sold-out crowd at the Somerville Theatre last night.
No, she didn't launch any long, left-wing rants -- and in fact joked that ''I started reading Gandhi again and that has severely cut into my [George W.] Bush jokes." She briefly pulverized Bush by reading a poem from a Louisiana teenager upset over his handling of Hurricane Katrina victims (''Bush done screw up big time down in the Gulf," the teen wrote), but for the most part Baez graciously focused on music that spanned a four-decade career dating back to her coffeehouse days in Cambridge.
In introducing ''Silver Dagger," Baez laughed and said that ''this was one of the first songs that I ever ripped off anybody in the Cambridge coffee shops." Then she sang it with the immaculate, high-pitched voice that has captivated folk audiences ever since. She further elevated her range through a couple of classics by Bob Dylan (''It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and ''Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall") and a couple by Steve Earle (''Jerusalem" and ''Christmas in Washington," notable for its line, ''Come back Woody Guthrie, Come back to us now"), while also dedicating the gospel tune ''Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" to recently deceased civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks.
Baez gave a warmly intimate retrospective of her career, opening with The Band's ''The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (her biggest hit, which went to No. 3 in 1971), then immediately going into Elvis Costello's sweetly compelling ''Scarlet Tide," proving she loves songs from all eras. And many tunes came with customized verbal introductions, such as the country standard ''Long Black Veil" which ''I learned from Johnny Cash when he was young and cute." Cash was a ''real rascal," she added, recalling that he introduced his then-wife as ''my first wife."
Baez's attractively dry wit kept the program from slipping into any bombast. She did a number of songs on solo acoustic guitar, but most were astutely backed by bassist Graham Maby (who first became known by touring with British new wave rocker Joe Jackson) and guitarist Erik Della Penna, who also added some lap-steel virtuosity.
When it came to the end of this nearly two-hour triumph, Baez performed her one other Top-40 hit, ''Diamonds and Rust," an autobiographical song about her and Dylan. She humorously changed the last line to ''If you're offering me diamonds and rust, I'll take the Grammy." It was a final note of levity during this well-received trip down memory lane.