October 22, 2009
New Theatre, Oxford
An almost reverential hush descends on Oxford's New Theatre as an
audience of a certain maturity awaits Joan Baez's appearance. This
does not seem misplaced. After all, in the folk music pantheon, Baez
is queen, if not quite God. And, after 51 years of tuning her guitar,
no one can say she has not earned the respect afforded to her. When
she walks on stage, with a four-strong touring band, whose homophony
of plucked instruments mandolin, mandola, guitars and bass,
provides ample, yet subtle accompaniment to their mistress, Baez is
looking remarkably trim, although it's difficult to picture her with
her trademark tresses, now long gone.
Thankfully, it is immediately clear that Baez's other trademark her
achingly clear voice remains, although with the passing of decades
she is now more mezzo than soprano. There is a tangible relaxation
among the audience once Baez opens her mouth to sing old favourite
"Lily of the West".
This is followed by "God is God", a song composed by American Blues
legend Steve Earle for The Day After Tomorrow, her most recent studio
album. It is a song about "recovery" and a "power greater than
yourself", Baez tells the audience. She adds that, when you have been
around as long as she has, "a power greater than yourself could just
as easily be a teapot".
Songs from Baez' early days on the Vanguard record label, "Farewell
Angelina" and "The Ballad of Joe Hill", are balanced with newer
material, including the plaintive "Just the Way you Are", on which
Joan duets with her musical director.
For a woman who has always had much more to sing than she has to say
why waste the gift she has been given on mere speech? Baez is in a
chatty mood, name-checking among others, The Beatles, Johnny Cash ("I
had such a huge crush on him"), Donovan and, of course, Bob Dylan,
whom Joan Baez parodies brilliantly on "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright".
Dylan's "Forever Young" is another highlight in an evening of
highlights. While the arrangement may have changed over the decades
to allow for the changes in Baez's voice, if it is possible, the song
has grown in poignancy as Baez has aged. She sings it alone on stage
while her band takes a well-earned rest.
"La Llorona" or "Weeping Woman", a song I have only previously heard
sung by another Mexican-American singer, Tish Hinojosa, La Llorona,
or 'Weeping Woman' is included in Baez's live repertoire for the
first time. Astonishingly, after five decades, "An Evening with Joan
Baez" is still a work in progress.
If anything, Baez seems more comfortable with her audience now than
at any other stage in her illustrious career and is delighted to fill
in a few gaps during her two encores. "Diamonds and Rust", a
Dylan-inspired lament, and "The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down",
Baez' sole Billboard top 10 hit, leave the audience sated at least for now.
Over the years, Baez' voice has been heard as much in protest as it
has in celebration. It has cheered Bobby Kennedy, chided the
architects of the Vietnam War, denounced Indira Gandhi and roused a
sleeping Martin Luther King who woke late for a preaching engagement
to declare: "I hear an angel in my room". Hers truly is an angelic
voice and, as long as Baez sings, she will never have to go far to
find an audience.