Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.
Beaming, Joan Baez takes to the Royal Festival Hall stage with a spring in her step and a little high kick, looking for all the world like there’s nowhere else that she’d rather be. “It’s always so good to be back in the land where half of my original repertoire came from,” Baez avers later, by way of introduction to a couple of Ballads. “The songs touched me so much. They were long and sad and beautiful. And, usually, at least one person died. In fact, if no-one died then the song didn’t make it into my repertoire.”
It should be no surprise, really, that Baez seems so comfortable and at ease on stage: she’s spent the greater part of her 71 years on them, after all. Saturday’s show was the second stop at the Royal Festival Hall in her current UK tour. And, as always, the audience seemed just as delighted to have Baez here as she seemed happy to be present. Unlike her last visit in her landmark year of 2008 [review here] Baez has no new album to promote this time around - not that that’s ever stopped her from constructing a wide-ranging set-list that touches as many corners of her voluminous repertoire as possible. Saturday evening’s show moved between old and new material, taking in the aforementioned ballads and songs by the writers Baez has championed and popularised - Dylan, Phil Ochs, Donovan, Steve Earle and (yay!) Richard Shindell - to construct a seamless story rich with the (lightly worn) weight of decades of history and political commitment as only a Baez gig can be.
Opening with Earle’s “God is God” from her last album, Baez took the first three songs solo on guitar, before being joined by her two accompanists: multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell and percussionist (and fils Baez) Gabriel Harris who contributed some fresh textures to the most familiar material and nicely complemented Baez's own ever-distinctive guitar-work. A bluegrass spirit infused a rollicking “Lily of the West” and a supple “Long Black Veil,” while slinky bass invigorated “The House of the Rising Sun” and reeling accordion fleshed out a biting “With God on Our Side.” Indeed, the brace of Bob tracks were received with particular enthusiasm, a gorgeous “Love is Just a Four Letter Word” the standout.
Baez’s deepened, weathered tones - high notes now strictly rationed - also continue to contribute fresh aspects to the music. Her voice seems richer than ever for its creaks and croaks and her ability to turn a song taut and dramatic while keeping it conversational and intimate is superb. “Be Not Too Hard,” “Suzanne,” “There But For Fortune” and Shindell’s “Mary Magdalene” were timelessly restrained and haunting, and as often Baez delighted in putting some twists and reversals on particular lines: those cufflinks in “Diamonds and Rust” were now given to that tricky lover “fifty” not “thirty years ago.” Her quirky humour and playfulness surfaced on an entertaining - if slightly arch - honky tonk rendition of “Stagger Lee,” while various anecdotes - making tea for The Beatles, singing for Havel in Czechoslovakia - also added context, insight and amusement. There was just one duff song selection: a gloopy bit of undistinguished balladry entitled “I Need You Just the Way You Are” that might have strayed in from a Celine Dion set-list. Baez (who seemed oddly sheepish about the track in the introduction) gave it a dignified enough spin, avoiding bombast. But when you consider the classics (or stronger new material) that it’s replacing it seems an unworthy choice.
Baez’s warmth and graciousness as a performer, her ability to make everyone present feel like a vital, valued member of a collective enterprise, are well-known, yet always striking. Once again, she demonstrated her ability to reduce a large venue to coffee-house intimacy, frequently waving up to the audience members in the balcony and often turning to sing directly to those occupying the choir seats behind her. Appropriately, the final section of the show - from “Gracias A La Vida” through to “Blowin’ in the Wind” - became a singalong, infused with 60s spirit.
From the perspective of our current culture, it’s slightly tormenting to think back to a period when songs like “There But For Fortune” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” were massive mainstream hits. Baez’s status as a bridge back to that tumultuous yet perhaps more engaged and more conscientious time clearly constitutes a considerable part of her enduring appeal. And yet her gigs seldom feel like exercises in nostalgia, and that’s due not only to the timeless appeal of the material but also to Baez’s ability to extend a bit of the past into the present, as evidenced by her dedication of a stirring “Joe Hill” to the Occupy movement. How urgently we need the lessons in compassion and empathy - and the calls to action - promoted in these songs, these days. And how heartening it is that, all these years on and as vibrantly as ever, Baez is still out there, delivering them.
God is God
Be Not Too Hard
Lily of the West
With God On Our Side
I Need You Just the Way You Are
The Ballad of Mary Magdalene
Catch the Wind
There But For Fortune
Swing Low Sweet Chariot
The House of the Rising Sun
Love Is Just A Four Letter Word
Long Black Veil
Gracias A La Vida
Diamonds and Rust
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Blowin’ in the Wind