|Joan Baez at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo credit: Martin Harris)
The last time Joan Baez took to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall was 10 years ago, during a tour celebrating the fifth decade of her storied career. Baez’s return to the venue on Monday night also marked a significant, though rather more bittersweet, occasion: the London stop on what she’s announced will be her final world tour, one which will continue in Europe throughout the summer and then head to the US in the Autumn. The tour accompanies the release of Baez’s fine new studio album, Whistle Down the Wind [review], a modest, beguilingly humble work that lightly touches some of the abiding concerns of her career, one in which activism and artistry have, of course, always been intimately interconnected. Taking its cue from the album, the concert itself also avoided any sense of grandstanding or any big, forced statements. Instead, Baez placed the focus firmly on the music, letting the songs – old or new, political or deeply personal – speak for themselves.
Baez is an artist who invariably creates an exceptionally warm and inclusive atmosphere for her audience, and she did so here from the moment she arrived on stage, apologising for her “lateness” (about five minutes or so!) with the confession “I forgot my lipstick.” She opened the show solo, performing Phil Ochs’ "There But for Fortune”, Steve Earle’s “God is God” and Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina” as a trio that harked back to the stark power of her first performances - a girl, a guitar, a commanding voice singing potent words - before being joined by what she jokingly referred to as her “big band,” an outfit comprising only her son, percussionist Gabriel Harris, and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell. The all-acoustic set-up brought the Whistle Down the Wind songs to vivid life, with a spellbinding take on Josh Ritter’s neo-folk ballad “Silver Blade” and a stately, deeply moving performance of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ode to memory and mindfulness, “The Things That We Are Made Of," among the stand-outs.
Fresh, supple textures were also added to standards such as a newly-relevant “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” a stunning, dramatic “The House of the Rising Sun” and an intense “Seven Curses,” Baez’s lower, weathered tones, with occasional rationed jumps to her higher register, finding new depths in the familiar material. Perhaps the only disappointment was “Silver Dagger,” drained of some its tension here in a more meandering arrangement that showcased Powell’s fiddle-playing. On the other hand, the contributions of the young singer Grace Sturmberg, who added ghostly harmonies to a haunting “Diamonds and Rust” and youthful zest to a rollicking “Darlin' Cory," were terrific.
Throughout, Baez seemed touchingly awed at the audience response, and her affection for the “beautiful, gorgeous” venue was palpable, especially as she recalled her first time performing there in the early ‘60s and her inclusion of the English music hall song “Isn’t it Grand, Boys?” in her set. “I got told off for singing ‘bloody’. Well, times have changed.”
Times have changed – are changing – but the greatness of Baez’s shows is that they offer us links to the past without ever feeling like mere nostalgia-fests. Nowhere was that clearer than in a section that began with, yes, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” – which Baez dedicated to the Florida students currently challenging the NRA – before progressing though Zoe Mulford’s hymnal “The President Sang Amazing Grace” and ending with a rousing “Joe Hill.”
Audience singalongs were encouraged from “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” onwards, and by the time the show reached its climax, which included a joyous, cathartic “Gracias A La Vida,” a tender “Imagine” and a stirring “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” these singalongs could be guaranteed without any prompting. Interestingly, no direct reference was made to the tour’s status as Baez’s last, and the addition of some new UK dates in 2019 suggests – happily – that this farewell tour may in fact turn out to be “a long goodbye”. Perhaps the closest that Baez came to acknowledging the significance of the tour was her repetition of a lyric in the final song that she performed, words from “The Boxer” that resonated as a statement of her shining legacy of activism and endurance: “I am leaving, I am leaving/But the fighter still remains.”
There But for Fortune
God is God
Whistle Down the Wind
It’s All Over Now Baby Blue
Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)
The Things That We Are Made Of
Diamonds and Rust
Me and Bobby McGee
The Times They Are A-Changin’
The President Sang Amazing Grace
Gracias a la Vida
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down