Jerry and I went to see Joan Baez decades ago, when she took center stage at Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center. I went again on Sunday night to a sold out house in Benaroya Hall. My cousin Bob flew in from New York to join me. This folk singer icon’s voice has changed a lot, it’s much lower than the pure soprano of her early years, but much stronger than I expected, dusky and sensual. She’s always been a skilled acoustical guitarist. Her son is part of her backup band, the boy she had with David Harris, an anti-war activist to whom she was briefly married back in the late 1960’s. She still, after just shy of 60 years on stage, puts on a fabulous show.
She continues to sing new material, although she gives way and sings the classics that the audience wants to hear, like Diamonds and Rust, the Boxer, Bobby McGee, Gracias a La Vida.
I went out of respect for her 60 years of finding a way to remain relevant as a performer, even as folk music long ago went out of favor. I went out of respect for her consistently passionate advocacy on behalf of peace and human rights. She’s gone to some of the most dangerous places in the world, to bring presence to ordinary people who felt abandoned. I think of her 1993 trip to Sarajevo, and her earlier visits to Hanoi to be in solidarity with bombing victims of the American war. She was at Dr. Martin Luther King’s side during many of his marches, including the march on Washington where she sang We Shall Overcome to 250,000 people. I went to hear her songs, most of which I knew by heart and still remember.
You can find a lot of Joan Baez on YouTube. Here’s my favorite clip of a much younger Baez, a casual session with guitarist Randy Scruggs, baby Gabriel on her lap, in which she mimics Bob Dylan in a way that’s absolutely dead on. Of course, you have to be a certain age to know either performer, and get the history between them, to know why this clip is so fun and funny. This is also Baez when her voice was most compelling and beautiful.
The concert was fabulous. She got a standing ovation coming in, and more during the performance. She came back for three encores. In between, it was pure Baez at her best — complete with an exhortation to vote, and a strong political statement. The 77 year olds can’t be the only ones calling our country back to its better self — where are the younger musicians?
I was grateful to have gone, grateful to see this beautiful woman with the voice, as Dr. King once said, of an angel. We’ve lost so many from that era: Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Mary Travers, Cass Elliot, Janis Joplin.
I’m grateful that we still have Joan Baez.
The review from Seattle isn’t out yet, but here’s London — agree with every word.