Joan Baez
at Town Hall,
New York, NY
(29 October 2008)

Joan Baez moved the audience to cheers and tears in a beautiful concert at New York City's Town Hall. This year marks Baez's 50th anniversary in music, and of course, an anniversary year for her generation -- 2009 will mark 40 years since Woodstock. Such an icon is she that she even appeared as a character in a play at the New York Fringe Festival this year, called Revolution on the Roof, set at a Sit-In at Stanford.

My companion, dramaturg Maxine Kern, told me she just "followed the aging hippies down the street" to find Town Hall. Maxine remembered seeing a 16-year-old Baez in a white dress with an unbelievable voice in Cambridge. There was a buzz on the sidewalk, a buzz in the Heartland Brewery next door. The venue appeared to be sold out. The concert was not a '60s-nostalgia fest, but part of a tour coinciding with the release of her new album Day After Tomorrow, released Sept. 9. The album made the Billboard charts -- the first time for Baez in 29 years. It's her first studio album in five years, produced by Steve Earle. It includes songs by Earle, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits, among others, as well as by younger writer Eliza Gilkyson. Before I describe the concert, let me rant for a paragraph here.

I pitched every New York and national outlet I could find on an interview/feature with Baez, talking about music and politics, 1968 vs. 2008. While a few outlets already had articles in the works (the Huffington Post has an insightful interview, as does the Phoenix in Massachusetts), and a few reviews, like this one, border into think-pieces, mostly I received "not for us." Senator John McCain has brought up the Weather Underground nearly every day in his presidential campaign, and many pundits have seen the current election as a contest between the Vietnam generation and Generation X. As a member of Gen X, I have often felt as though the '60s never ended, they just changed key. Folk music was once the "glue" keeping people together in their civic protests, what is it now? To hear Baez in concert is a treat, to hear her thoughts about her experiences across this century, with a pending, important election, is a treasure. Maxine suggested that the media is no longer interested in what Boomers think. They're a target market, there are still a lot of them with buying power, but their views, their insight, the benefit of their experience, are being left behind. And that just stuns me, when I hear people my own age and younger dismissing G. Gordon Liddy as "a burglar," and frothing over Bill Ayers without considering the context of the Vietnam war. The earnest folkie who marched with Martin Luther King and inspired Vaclav Havel still has statements to make. Doesn't anybody want to hear them?

But to the concert. For the U.S. tour, her backup band includes John Doyle on guitar, Dirk Powell on fiddle, banjo and everything else, and Todd Phillips on bass. This trio hails from the Celtic, old-timey and bluegrass world, and wonderfully complement and support Baez's still-beautiful voice and heartfelt delivery. In particular, Doyle kept Baez from lagging or dragging, with a peppy, forward-moving style. Over the course of the evening Baez sang many songs from the new album, some beloved songs from her repertoire, including a little bluegrass, ballads, pop. At 67, her mature voice has depth and power. It's not the shiny, strong soprano of her youth, but her earnest expression makes up for a lot.

Baez wore all black with a long yellow scarf, and looked fondly around at Town Hall (the site, you may recall, for the folk mocumentary A Mighty Wind). She opened with "Lily of the West." Many of the audience sang along softly. After this song, Baez left the stage -- Doyle said, "that was unexpected." The three "lads," as Baez referred to them, then went into an old-timey number, "Bo Weivel," trading lead verses. Powell's lively bouzouki work was a stand-out, and Doyle's trademark, highly physicalized playing brought out the syncopation in the song.

Baez returned, launching into a song by Elvis Costello and Joseph Henry (T-Bone) Burnett, "Scarlet Tide," off the new album. Throughout the evening, a roadie named Stephanie brought on and took off guitars; Baez introduced her at one point and then teased her "I don't want to hear about this later." "God is God," written by Steve Earle, is from the new album, one of the album's many gems. The song "is recovery speak," she explained. Its rocking, quiet melody has a healing quality to it, and the combination of guitar, bouzuki, mandolin and bass brought out a real wall of acoustic sound. "And I believe in God, and God ain't us," goes the refrain.

Baez told stories from her long career, many met with knowing laughter from the audience of friends, over the course of the one longish set. She explained that as a girl she had fallen in love with ballads, falling asleep singing with the guitar on her chest. She then began "Peggy-O," again, many of the audience sang with the choruses. Powell picked up the banjo to accompany her on this one.

On another tune, he played the accordion. For Dylan's "Farewell, Angelina" Powell picked up the fiddle. And he rocked that fiddle. "That Old Gospel Ship," a song she said came from her "Johnny Cash days," was lively and rousing. Powell played banjo, with a furious solo in the center. Leaving the audience on a high, Baez shouted "let it out for Obama!" and Town Hall erupted in cheers.

At one point, Baez explained that as a child she'd also loved blues, without understanding what the naughty entendres meant. At a school talent show, she sang "I need it -- my honey love," to her parents' distress. Following this little piece of comedy, she went into the pop song "Don't Know Much," and the audience sang along. Powell strummed the violin this time. "Rose of Sharon," by Eliza Gilkyson, is my favorite song from "Day After Tomorrow," and it appears to be one of Baez's as well. It is, as she described it, a new song that feels like an old ballad, with a melody that ranges from major to minor keys, supported by Doyle's gentle vocal harmony. "Rise up my love and come away, / The rain is over and gone / Your love is the fruit of my darkest day / And I am your Rose of Sharon."

Alone on stage next, Baez sang the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" a cappella, demonstrating that her pitch is as pure as ever. She stepped away from the microphone for the second verse, and something seemed to click -- she found her voice, unmediated through the speakers. Its power was demonstrably real. "That's the voice of the 16-year old girl," Maxine murmered.

The title song of Baez's new album is an antiwar protest -- a plaintive song by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, narrating a letter home from a young soldier in Iraq, dreaming about going home "the day after tomorrow." Baez stopped and started the song, clearing her throat -- joking about her voice. People wiped away tears when in the last verse the soldier mentions that it's his 21st birthday. For me, the verse that put a lump in my throat was the one where the soldier wonders "don't they pray to the same God we do / how does God choose whose prayers he will hear, and which refuse?"

Loud applause greeted the opening of "Diamonds & Rust," the title song from her most famous album, and a bittersweet poem about her affair with Bob Dylan. It's a song dealing with memory, and takes on many layers of meaning when sung in 2008. "Forty years ago I bought you some cufflinks," she sang, with a wry grin. "Nostalgic -- give me another word for it," means something different when sung to people experiencing the emotion. Steve Earle's cheery, catchy "I Am a Wanderer," from the new album, brought the mood up again, helped by the jangling strings from the band.

In the middle of Dylan's "Love is a Four-Letter Word," she went into a spot-on Dylan imitation. Again, I just have to wonder why I haven't seen her on "The View" or Letterman. Honestly, I don't get it. Baez finished the evening with "Jerusalem," a sweet, peppy tune from "Bowery Songs."

Of course, there were loud cheers for encores. "Joe Hill!" people shouted. Someone behind me shouted "Joe the Plumber!" A woman upfront shouted "You're aging well!" "Thank you, I work at it," Baez replied.

But she didn't sing "Joe Hill." Instead she sang "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," in a ringing, clear tone. It was a great choice, as it's not only one of her most well-known, it easily encourages people to sing (the Irish girl group The Screaming Orphans often include it in a set) and it's in lower range that suits her older voice very well.

John Lennon's "Imagine" followed, with the boys singing harmony. The audience sang with this, with real emotion behind the lines about being a dreamer. I know, I know, we should feel hopeful with "Let it out for Obama," and all, but I've always felt the death of John Lennon in 1980, followed hard-on by the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, was the end of '60s idealism. Aging hippies, and their friends too, were in tears.

But then the band then left the stage, and Baez conducted the audience in a solemn "Amazing Grace," filled with wonder and hope.

Baez continues touring the U.S. through November 24th.

by Gwen Orel
8 November 2008

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