It may be Joan Baez’ farewell tour, but her incredible, captivating voice will stay with audiences forever, writes Alex Corns
The Bridgewater Hall, 24th May
Usually, a review of an artist’s performance would provide a bit of background, describe the highlights of the show, and perhaps note a few things that the writer feels might have improved it. How, then, does one write a review of a performance so strong, so powerful, and so flawless that to leave anything out would be to do the performance a disservice?
Anything that needs writing about Joan Baez has already been written. Her voice, at 77, is as outrageously angelic as it was when she released her first album, aged 19, in 1961. Her memoir, with reference to her singing voice, opens with the words “I was born gifted”. For some artists such a claim might be considered arrogant — for her, it is indisputable. Such a voice cannot be taught.
Opening with one of her most famous recordings, the Steve Ochs penned ‘There But For Fortune’, Baez gracefully works her way through songs written by Steve Earle (‘God is God’), Bob Dylan (‘Farewell, Angelina’), Tom Waits (the title track of her newest studio album, ‘Whistle Down the Wind’) and Josh Ritter’s ballad ‘Silver Blade’.
The next song, Dylan’s 1965 piece ‘(It’s All Over Now) Baby Blue’ is immediately met with an ovation. It is sung with such freedom, such openness, and so earnestly that the audience is immediately captivated. The fact that only the titular line is sung back to her each time shows a beautiful respect between performer and audience, and she shows no fear in trying to hit the highest notes of the song: need it be said? She succeeds. Perfectly.
That she may well have been the subject of the song when Dylan initially wrote it only adds intrigue. Her recordings of such songs have never been a case of needing to make them her own. The respect for the original artist is always plainly evident, but hearing Baez sing them gives them a clarity that one never realised could exist — it’s like suddenly seeing a classic film in ultra-HD. Nothing has been cut, the original remains as faultless as it always was, and yet a new vibrancy is palpable.
Before performing Woody Guthrie’s protest song ‘Deportee’, Baez provides context, describing the press coverage of the 1948 Los Gatos DC-3 crash in which only the plane’s staff, and not the twenty-eight Mexican citizens on board were named (the Mexicans referred to merely as ‘deportees’). She pays tribute to them, and to all refugees, and pays tribute too to the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing, before playing a harrowingly beautiful rendition of Zoe Mulford’s (who attended the gig) song, ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’, written in response to President Obama’s eulogy at the Charleston shooting service.
A cover of Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’ is dedicated to the students of the University of Florida: “wonderful kids with an achievable goal, the closest thing we’ve had to a movement in a long time,” she says. Lines like “come senators, congressmen, please heed the call” hold an extra poignancy.
Whilst these songs are deeply moving, in-between lies a magnificent cover of Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ (made famous by Janis Joplin) and of classic folk songs like ‘Silver Dagger’ and ‘House of the Rising Sun’, the latter performed backed by a funky bass guitar. Violeta Parra’s ‘Gracias a la Vida’ encourages another soothing singalong.
Finally, grinning, she plays a three-song encore consisting of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, The Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ (her cover of which was recently featured beautifully in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and, lastly, to a standing ovation, Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.
Before bidding farewell, Baez tells of how she was reprimanded years ago by a 107-year-old fan after complaining that her “feet are tired from marches”. The woman lecturing her was, it transpired, still going on such marches. The message is clear: whilst this may be a farewell tour, it does not mean she will ever stop standing up for the ideals that she believes in. She notices a t-shirt emblazoned with the words: “I don’t need therapy I just need to listen to Joan Baez”.
Baez quips, laughing: “I’ve had to do both.”