Joan Baez Triumphs at the Music Hall
TO HAVE THE CHANCE to see and hear a live performance by Joan Baez, whose music-making and dedication to righting wrongs have spanned over 55 years, and who started her stellar career at about the same time as many of us in the sold-out audience Wednesday night, is nothing short of a miracle.
How Charles Carmody manages to book iconic stars like Baez remains a mystery to me, but he continues to bring Serious Talent to the Charleston Music Hall. Knowing that “the best female folk singer of our era” has been, through her music and throughout her life, an indefatigable supporter of often-unpopular causes for justice made us appreciate all the more her appearance here.
The songs this singer, songwriter, musician, and activist chose to present formed a kind of history of her involvement whenever and wherever she felt her voice was needed. Winning countless humanitarian awards, as well as virtually every honor musical associations can bestow, she opened with a simple, quiet folk tune — accompanying herself on guitar — that immediately endeared her to us: beginning, “In South Carolina…”
She did not hesitate to reveal her strong faith with a bit of humor: “I Believe in God, and God Ain’t Us.” It did not take her long, of course, to make a trenchant statement, quoting Madeleine Albrecht: “I believe there is a special place in hell for women who don’t support women.” She allowed herself a few more political statements (and later, only one Trump jibe!), suggesting “Sanders work with Obama to start a real non-violent revolution,” followed by her own “Silver Dagger.”
Well, you didn’t expect Joan Baez to mellow with age, didya?
As if we were not already worshipping at her feet, she invited us to join in on one line of her next song, “Baby Blue” — “It’s so sweet when you do” — and after one right tentative effort, she encouraged, “Now, unrestrained.” That’s all the house full of devotees had to hear.
Back in the day, the anything-but-silent sixties, we fancied ourselves rebels, too, even if we did not quite make it to Woodstock. Baez told us a searing story of “illegal” immigrants sent back to their native lands on an airplane that crashed in flames, inspiring Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees” which is how those on board were referred to. The strength of her passion for this kind of inhumanity showed through in her rendition of Guthrie’s song. Attorneys have since worked for decades to identify by name every person on that flight, she shared, giving their families closure at last.
On this “protest” song, Baez was joined by Gabriel Harris on percussion, here a bongo drum beat. I am unsure how many in the audience know that Gabe is her son, but this story song seemed especially moving.
For “Galway to Graceland,” the tale of an older Irish woman making her way to be with Elvis the King, she was joined by Dirk Powell, a veritable master of the banjo, fiddle, all manner of guitars, and piano. The guys sang with her on some beautifully arranged songs and, shortly, Baez smiled and said, “I found me a co-singer.” Introducing Grace Stromberg, the two made old favorites and more contemporary compositions alike hum with close harmony. Smart lady: Baez’s distinctive voice is, inevitably after over half-a-century and more than 30 albums, showing just a bit of wear and tear. Notes near the top of her range are not quite so crystalline, and this multi-city tour with hardly a day’s break cannot help but affect her stamina. But not much!
Launching into “Me and Bobby McGee,” which I do not think can be performed with more gusto than this ensemble engendered, the troupe finally led us down memory lane, with what some consider Baez’ signature piece, “Diamonds and Rust.” This version had a new twist, garnering bubbles of laughter as Baez ended with, “If you’re offering me diamonds or rust…I’ll take diamonds!”
“I’ve been a pessimist all my life,” Baez then declared, which does not really jibe with her clarion call, “Now is the time to rekindle, recommit” ourselves to ending so many issues that need our attention, from mass incarcerations to race issues to…helped along, no doubt, by the staunch belief inherent in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
One of her next stops is Birmingham, where her 17-year-old granddaughter will join her. They will tour the church burned during those harsh days, so her 1960 hit “Birmingham Sunday” had all the more punch in context.
Next — oh, joy! We’d know that intro anywhere, especially those of us who fashioned ourselves after Baez’s style in our own little attempts at fame: “House of the Rising Sun” echoed unceasingly through college dorm halls — but nobody does it better.
Another story in her storied life, when she was incarcerated along with over a hundred other (white) women in a “black” jail for “aiding and abetting” draft dodgers, brought an upbeat tune she learned from an African-American woman who shared it with her because Baez was not “Caucasian white!” Who else has this kind of history?
Paul Simon’s “Boxer” got us on our feet, and when we begged for another encore, Baez closed with John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Oh, we did, we did.