JOAN BAEZ St Davids Hall, Cardiff 8 March 2007
Billed, without a hint of hyperbole, as An Evening With Joan Baez, tonight was a minor revelation for distant admirers of the topical songstress, as she played a 100 minute set that was immaculate in practically every way. Even so, given both the breadth and depth of her back catalogue and her ear for a contemporary tune lurking outside of it, I harbour the strong suspicion that she couldve played an entirely different set and been received with equal rapture.
Flanked by two multi-talented guitarists, themselves masters of every four- and six-stringed instrument at their disposal, she seemed like a walking, talking, dancing (gently, but definitely) lexicon of folk song. She doesnt mention him by name, of course, but opening with Farewell, Angelina seems like an unnecessary genuflection; at other points in the evening she visits With God On Our Side (with, if I recall correctly, the death toll increased from the originals six million to eleven million, perhaps intending it as a more inclusive, encompassing tragedy) and towards the end of Lover Is Just Another Word breaks out in a sardonic caricature of the songs author. Theres also a haunting, entirely solo Diamonds & Rust, whose spell is wickedly shattered when she alters the closing lines to If youre offering me diamonds and rust/Ill take the Grammy! in recognition of her recent Lifetime Achievement Award.
Outside the inevitable Dylan connections and connotations, she performed Long Black Veil (prefaced with an anecdote about meeting Johnny Cash, then known in folk circles to be besotted with June Carter, who introduced his then spouse as my first wife) and Joe Hill (alongside memories of hitching a helicopter ride into Woodstock with Janis Joplin) and Steve Earles Christmas In Washington. Finlandia was sung acapella to the folks behind the stage (a seating configuration Ive not encountered outside Dont Look Back and the cover of Simon & Garfunkels Live From New York, 1967). Carrickfergus was one of few songs to undergo a gender change; more surprising were Stand By Me well, she was covering Stevie Wonder 35 years ago, and it doesnt take much to recontextualise it as a labour anthem and Tom Waits The Day After Tomorrow, a song so new to her repertoire that she had to read the lyrics, diminished not at all by the absence of Waits gravel-gargling growl. Green, Green Grass Of Home, arguably the unofficial Welsh national anthem, was another neat trick, and reflecting on hearing the citys church bells from her dressing room she offered the appropriate snippet from The Bells Of Rhymney Thats the only line I know of that song!
If there was some suggestion that her voice was a little cracked and impure during the first few songs, whatever medicinal draught was contained in the mug she drank from during the evening soon put paid to that, and her trademark vibrato had returned by the end of the night. This being St Davids Hall the acoustics were immaculate throughout. In summary, if you like folk music (that sweet, uh, folk music) of any stripe, if you value passion, commitment, purpose and poise in your music making, you really should go see her.
JOAN BAEZ The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 4 March 2012
As is becoming traditional, Joan delivers another evening of socially conscious musical entertainment, her setlist spanning centuries of protest and folk music. The songs she chooses of more recent vintage have the aura of the canonical about them already, every “Lily Of The West” and “The House of The Rising Sun” being matched by a “Scarlet Tide” (written by Elvis Costello) or a “Jerusalem” (a Steve Earle song). Performing as part of a kind of anti-power trio with multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell and her son Gabriel Harris on percussion, the bass and piano solos are deployed so delicately you might not even notice, and if she strains to reach some notes (perhaps explaining the mug of Chinese throat tea at her side) others she most definitely does not.
The songs that receive the most applause when recognised from their introductions are, perhaps inevitably, those either written or inspired by (in the case of the magnificent open wound of “Diamonds And Rust”) one Robert Zimmerman. It must be hard lugging that ghost around on stage every night, but it’s clearly a conscious decision, and the amusing if slightly sour whiney Dylan impression she’s lapsed into in the past is absent tonight. In its stead are “Love Is Just A Four Letter Word”, “With God On Our Side”, “Farewell Angelina” and “Blowin’ In The Wind”. Others of a legion of highlights include a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, not a song I had previously associated with Joan, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (very much a song I had previously associated with Joan, having owned the single as a four-year-old) and a community singalong version of “Imagine”, Baez prompting the audience with the lyrics.
Helped by the Bridgewater’s usually marvellous acoustics, and hardly hindered by what must be the smallest PA I’ve seen in a venue of this size, it’s a lovely evening, a tribute to the power of song and the perseverance of the human spirit.
JOAN BAEZ Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff 22 March 2012
Things have changed in the weeks since Ms Baez’s Manchester appearance. There’s now a stage set of sorts – a standard lamp and capacious sofa straight outta “Stop Making Sense”. Joan confesses to wanting a couch on stage for the last 40 years, and six shows ago she finally got one. There are some minor tweaks to the setlist, too: tonight we get the geographically appropriate “The Bells Of Rhymney”, with certain sections of the audience vocal in approval when the lyrics reach their hometowns, and “Stagger Lee”, included as a vehicle to permit Joan a mid-set loll on the sofa. Both are so fresh that she has recourse to printed lyrics. Some of the between-song patter has changed, too: back in Manchester she struggled to attribute “Catch The Wind” to its author, Donovan, but now it’s preceded by an entire anecdote about meeting The Beatles as they held court over an entire floor of an American hotel, remembering them being most impressed by not having to put money in the Coke machine.
It’s another excellent performance, again barely marred by the occasional grapple for a note – my Pa thought she might have a cold, the mug of tea again in evidence – but nothing you’d ask for your money back for. As the first lady of protest, her message and appeal are still universal, and still necessary.
JOAN BAEZ One Day At A Time (Vanguard)
Recorded in Nashville in the wake of Woodstock, featuring several musicians who’d played on Bob Dylan’s albums, this 1970 release documented “interesting” times for Baez. Pregnant, and with her conscientious objector husband imprisoned, the siege mentality she must have been living under permeates the songs she covers even as she forges bold new fusions of country, rock, folk and soul.
Rarely recognised as a songwriter, “One Day At A Time” contains her first two recorded compositions, and they’re both lovely. “Sweet Sir Galahad” recounts the courtship of her sister Mimi Fariņa following the death of her first husband, a subtle, fragrant evocation of the reawakening of feelings long dulled and dormant. “A Song For David” is addressed to her own embattled husband, delicate and heartfelt. Both might make you wish Baez were more prolific.
The rest of the album comprises covers of traditional and contemporary material. The Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations” is perhaps the eyebrow-raiser, played as fully countrified rock, and Steve Young’s “Seven Bridges Road” inevitably sounds ornate to me as I only know the song from the Eagles’ acapella version. “Ghetto”, originally performed by The Staple Singers, quietly pioneers the same kind of fusion of country, rock and soul The Flying Burrito Brothers were concocting at around the same time, but smothering Broadside standard “Carry It On” with fiddle and pedal steel doesn’t seem like the most symbiotic of matches. “Jolie Blonde” whoops it up, being that rarest of things a Joan Baez instrumental, indicative of the mood of a Baez album that’s progressive in ways other than its politics. Finally, Willie Nelson’s title track uncannily taps into what the lady’s mindset must have been during those troubled times.
The 2005 CD reissue arrives with absorbing, erudite booklet notes (the kind that have a bibliography attached!), and two bonus tracks from the album sessions, the Merle Haggard covers “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried”. It all adds up to an unexpected, neglected gem in the Baez catalogue, the kind of album that could have been quietly revolutionary, if only enough ears were listening.