Baez hasn't lost step over 50 years
March 15, 2009
Joan Baez played 21 songs over the course of an enchanting two-hour
performance Saturday night at the Barrymore Theatre for a sold-out
crowd of Madison greybeard lefties (and their children and children's
She intermingled the songs with laid-back storytelling about Martin
Luther King Jr., her parents' second wedding and her collaboration
with Steve Earle on her recent Grammy-nominated album "Day After Tomorrow."
But there was a mission that kept the show clipping along.
"We have a few decades to traverse this evening," she announced after
starting with "Lily of the West," off 1961's "Joan Baez, Vol. 2."
With that in mind, she lit into a song she recorded 47 years later,
Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett's "Scarlet Tide." An acoustic trio
backed her up, ably switching between stand-up bass, piano, banjo,
fiddle, guitar and mandolin.
Baez, 68, is celebrating 50 years of performing on this tour. She
broke into the emerging folk scene at the Newport Folk Festival in
1959 and hasn't stopped performing, recording and being a social
activist since then.
The warble of old age did at times creep into her vocals, most
noticeably during an a capella version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
But her interpretation and the powerful range of her voice
overshadowed imperfections like this by a long shot. In fact, they
simply added to the beauty of her voice.
Her voice has a feather-like quality to it it floats as if airborne
over the instrumentation, but still has a purpose and strength to it
like the rigid vane on a feather. Above all it has the power to evoke
images. Even when she sings a cliche line like "Well, there's foxes
in the henhouse," she soaks it with a meaning so specific, so exact,
you can feel and see what she's talking about.
Before singing "Christmas in Washington," about a young man who lost
his way while following Woody Guthrie around the country, she praised
Guthrie as "the first songwriter that put risk behind songs." She
likewise put risk behind her singing Saturday night.
Often the stories she told augmented the experience of the song that
followed. Before singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," she told the
crowd about singing it as a way to wake up Dr. King from a nap after
an exhausting march for civil rights in Granada, Miss. After she
finished the last note, he didn't even open his eyes; he just rolled
over and said, "Hmm, I believe I hear the sound of an angel."
When she reached the last verse of the song, she stepped out from
behind the mic and continued singing without amplification. As she
finished the song, the audience held their breath except for a baby
that gurgled and let out a few whelps (a "Pay attention to me" cry,
not an unhappy cry).
But the sweetest moment came with "Forever Young." She said she sang
the song for her son's wedding, and then again for her parents' second wedding.
Second wedding? Well, it went like this: At 91, her father decided he
didn't want to die alone and that the only person he wanted to marry
was Baez's mother, even though they divorced amicably 30 years
earlier. Baez's mother, now 96, said "Oh, what the hell" and put on
her fake eyelashes for the wedding. After a lifetime of wearing
"something comfortable," Baez's father conceded to wearing a tuxedo
for the wedding. When Baez handed her father the ring, he admitted
in a typical 91-year-old memory lapse that he couldn't recall what
to do with it.
A story like that puts a bittersweet weight in lines like, "May you
build a ladder to the stars / And climb on every rung / May you stay
Baez also injected humor into her performance. She mimicked Bob
Dylan's nasal, reedy voice for a couple lines of "Don't Think Twice,
It's All Right," and interjected "I'll take the Grammy!" at the end
of "Rust and Diamonds."
After leaving the stage with an armful of bouquets from the audience,
she came back with the band for two encores: "Jerusalem" and "The
Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," as the audience sang along.
The doors to the lobby of the Barrymore were propped open and some
people started to put on their coats, but Baez came back alone for
two more, John Lennon's "Imagine" and then "Amazing Grace," singing a
capella and leading the audience with her.
Our feet were lighter as we stepped out onto Atwood Avenue, and even
though it had gotten colder, the smell of spring was still in the air.
After years of protesting, Joan Baez is singing a hopeful tune
March 12, 2009
The answers are "blowin' in the wind," as legendary folk singer Joan
Baez has sung many times. At 68, Baez may not have found those
answers, but in a year of rapid political change, she's learned how
quickly that wind can shift.
The election of Barack Obama has definitely lightened Baez's heart
after nearly a decade of protesting and singing against the policies
of the previous administration. Her current album, the
Grammy-nominated "Day After Tomorrow," seems to act as a bridge
between the two political eras -- there are songs that touch on
issues of the day, but overall the themes are more emotional and
spiritual than political.
Baez, who is celebrating 50 years as a professional musician, will be
performing with her four-piece band at the Barrymore Theatre, 2090
Atwood Ave. at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 14. Tickets are $45 through the
Barrymore and its outlets, online at barrymorelive.com, and by phone
at 241-8633, and one dollar per ticket goes to the Madison chapter of
Iraq Veterans Against the War.
The Capital Times talked with Baez while she was on the road:
I interviewed you in 2005, and you set me straight when I asked
whether you were an optimist. I have a quote here, "We haven't
reached the point where I feel like we're going to overcome anything.
I've never been an optimist. I've always been very practical. I've
watched how the human race functions, and we're just awful. We outdo
(Laughs). I must have been in a dandy humor.
Would you care to revise and extend your remarks now?
I've never been big on the word "hope," but I've never seen anything
like this subway car I was in, for the inauguration, heading into the
capital. It was probably the high point for me, actually, to see
people of all races high-fiving and hugging. It's something I would
have never expected to see in my lifetime.
In this extraordinary time, I really have put aside a lot of my
grumbles. I know there will be lots of things I disagree with, but to
see somebody willing to talk with the "enemy," somebody who has the
writings of Gandhi on their Top 10 list, they just create a sense of
joy in me. I don't know how we're going to get through the mess we're
in now, but there's still some sense that it's possible, if people
give enough of a damn, if people are willing to take risks. We'll
just see if we are.
So optimist might be a little far, but you're hopeful.
Hopeful, yeah. I think optimism might be a little dangerous right now.
For the last few years, you've been singing against something. What's
it like to be singing for something again?
It's absolutely wonderful to have the audience not feel cowed by
something, but have them also feeling joyous. It's a celebration.
There's a feeling that we don't have to be embarrassed about each
other or what's going on in the world or who we are. There's more a
sense of aliveness.
People have called "Day After Tomorrow" a very spiritual album. Do
you think it taps into that, sort of ahead of the curve?
I think so. Those kinds of things are not always consciously down, in
the picking out of the songs, and eventually it ends up like this. I
don't know that it would have happened like that two or three years
ago. I can see why it's interpreted like that, and I certainly have
Especially with Steve (Earle). I like the fact that he says "God is
God" in his recovery speech. I saw him giving an interview, and
somebody asked him if he believed in God, and he said, "Oh, I've got
no problem with God." For an old leftie to say that, I think is wonderful.
What was it like to work with Steve Earle and sing three of his songs?
I was thrilled, first of all, with those songs. The fact that he said
he wrote them for me, I nearly dropped dead. It was really very, very
moving and flattering. Working with him is pretty much what I prefer:
simple. He chose all the musicians, he chose where. We'd go in in the
morning and they'd make biscuits in that place, so we'd have biscuits
and coffee and go to work. He works fast -- and we got the whole
thing done in 10 days.
And then he went on tour. I said, "I've got to do some more vocals,"
and his attitude was basically, "The spirit's here, I'm outta here."
I stayed around and did some technical stuff with the voice, and that
was fine. We wanted something earthy and unplugged and meaningful,
and it turns out we were making a bookend to the beginning.
Your voice has kind of a haunting quality to it on the album. Was
that a conscious decision?
No, I think that's where it is. I couldn't do something else if I
wanted to. I think it's 50 years added onto what I had at the
beginning, added onto and whatever has been taken away from it, I
hope, has been replaced by something. Obviously, it's all lower and
deeper, and hopefully, more lived in.
How do you interpret a song like Tom Waits' "Day After Tomorrow"? Do
you listen to the original version? Do you just take it off the page?
I don't take stuff off the page. I hear it, and listen long enough to
get the general drift. Then I have the words, especially with a long
song like that. And then as soon as I can possibly do it, I discard
the original so that whatever I do after that, little by little,
becomes my own.
You tour occasionally with your son, who is a drummer, and you live
outside San Francisco with your 96-year-old mother. Why is it
important to you to have those generations of family be such an
important part of your life?
It feels like family, and I didn't do family much in the '60s and
'70s. I did a lot of other things. My mom, particularly, is showing
me how to get older. Hopefully, she'll be in that little house when
she dies, and hopefully we'll all be there with her.
I have such admiration for her when I see her getting up, with that
walker, going places. She gets so tired and her legs hurt, but she
just keeps doing it. I wonder to myself: Am I going to have that
oomph if I get to that age? Sometimes I watch her and I just start to
cry, because of my admiration.