SHAKE, RATTLE AND FOLK:
JOAN BAEZ AT ROYCE HALL

By Ross Altman

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In the summer of 1959, a barefoot, Mexican-American beatnik girl with long black hair, a short yellow dress and an acoustic Martin OO-17 guitar showed up at the first Newport Folk Festival with Bob Gibson to do a brief set. She didn't have a band, she didn't have a hit song, she didn't have a Grammy, she didn't even have a record, but Lord did she have a voice.

Fast-forward fifty years: Short silver hair, tight jeans, biker dude Levi jacket, someone who could pass for a butch dyke showed up at Royce Hall last night claiming to be Joan Baez. And guess what? She rocked the joint. With the hottest band in folk music (or what is now called folk music), Joan plugged in her Martin OO-45 and more than held her own with lead guitarist John Doyle, Cajun fiddler Dirk Powell, bassist Todd Phillips and her son percussionist Gabriel Harris. "You go girl!" was made for nights like this.

You thought you had heard Lily of the West before, but you never heard it with a beat. You thought you had heard Silver Dagger before, but you never heard it with a charging, amped up, plugged in acoustic guitar; and you thought you had heard Long Black Veil (by the un-credited Marijon Wilkins and Danny Dill) before, but you have never heard it with a jazz-inflected bass and a swinging Louisiana Cajun fiddle greasing the wheels. Call it roadhouse folk: JB put on a show.

One part impresario, one part torch bearer of the richest recorded legacy in modern folk music, and one part channeler of the strange rock god and mystery tramp who wrote her best material and inspired her best songs (see next month's column, Bob Does Pepsi), she ranged back over a half century of traditional ballads, folk anthems, and contemporary imitations of the classic folk singers of her (and our) youth-Woody Guthrie and Woody's children, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Donovan.

Indeed, it was surprisingly Donovan's song Catch the Wind that provided her most emotional performance of "An Evening with Joan Baez." Which, with all those heavy-hitter ghosts on stage with her, is rather like saying Pee Wee Reese hit the game-winning home run in a Yankees line-up that included Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

But Catch the Wind brought another ghost on stage with Joan-her late sister Mimi Farina, with whom Joan used to sing the song. To hear her sing it for Mimi was a powerful portrait of undying love-she didn't just try to catch the wind, she caught it.

The second most inspiring moment of the evening also had Mimi entwined in it-the unscripted interpolation in her published set list of the song Joan wrote for her sister, Sweet Sir Galahad, about the man who rescued her from despair after Richard Farina was killed in a motorcycle accident on his way to the book signing of his one-and-only novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.

Joan sang Sweet Sir Galahad during her brief but welcome solo set, when the band left the stage and we finally got a glimpse of the incandescent troubadour we grew up on.

And while she was at it she generously added two more songs that were not on her set list (provided in UCLALive!'s press kit), Honest Lullaby, which she wrote for her and draft resistor David Harris's son Gabriel, with whom she announced she was proud to be touring, and her best original song, written for that aforementioned "original vagabond," Diamonds and Rust. A consummate entertainer, Joan knows where her money songs are, and this one inspired a rolling thunder of applause from the first signature E minor guitar hook of an opening, before she even sang a note.

The end of the song also provided one of the two comic highlights of the evening. She winds up her heartbreaking tale of a telephone conversation with the lost love of her life-with whom she shared the throne of king and queen of folk music in the early 1960s-with the title line, "But if you're offering Diamonds and Rust, I've already paid." But this time she changed the climactic I've already paid to I'll take the Grammy, a perfectly timed reference to her Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award of 2007. It brought down the house.

But she wasn't done with Bob. Having sung the first song he wrote for her, Farewell Angelina, earlier in the evening, she saved the best for last, his Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word, which she ramped up in the last verse with a dead-on parody of the voice that ate Greenwich Village, the "cat being dragged across a barbed-wire fence," as one wag described it. As Woody Guthrie once said of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, "He sounds more like me than I do," Joan sounded more like Bob than he does.

For those who think of Joan Baez's art and her politics in the same breath, however, they might have felt short-changed last night, since there were only two political songs in the concert, neither of which were written by the usual suspects. They were both written by one of only two left-wing country singers going (the other being Kris Kristofferson), Steve Earle. They are worthy additions to the folk canon-Christmas in Washington, with the haunting refrain, Come back Woody Guthrie, and his paean to the long-frustrated hope for peace in the Middle East, Jerusalem, with the plaintive chorus, I believe that one day all the children of Abraham/will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem.

Earle also produced Joan Baez's most recent studio album The Day After Tomorrow (released in September, 2008) from which Joan selected several songs for last night's show. Disappointingly, though, she did not do the title song, written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, a searing anti-war letter home as narrated by an American soldier in Iraq. One almost had the feeling-based on her repartee with the audience-that Joan was pulling her punches, since the war has now become Obama's war, and she was an early and ardent supporter of Obama. Though the antiwar candidate of 2008 has now become the war president of 2009, and just announced that he is sending 17,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan, for Joan it's clear the honeymoon has not ended; she is still back on Inauguration Day, inviting the audience to celebrate "the multi-racial bus ride" she took to the National Mall.

The one thing a folk singer cannot afford to do, however, is to pull her punches, especially one as long committed to nonviolence, human rights and antiwar activism as Joan Baez. She mentioned how proud she was that her new president put The Life of Gandhi on his list of ten favorite books. So with his left hand he is reading The Life of Gandhi and with his right hand he is deploying troops.

In the same vein, I couldn't for the life of me figure out why she would end her crowd-pleasing concert (other than the fact that it was a hit song for her) with Robbie Robertson's (un-credited) homage to the slave-owning plantation south, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, only seven days after we celebrated the 200th birthday of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. What happened to "the multi-racial bus ride"?

In short, Florence Reece's classic question is again up for grabs, Which Side Are You On? And the answer, I am afraid, is still blowing in the wind.

A better note to end on would have been Joan's first encore, the Chilean Nuevo Cancion anthem by (the un-credited) Violetta Para, Gracias a la Vida, or Thanks to Life. It reminds one of why Joan Baez has for 50 years been so well cherished as an artist-for bringing the world to our doorstep with a cry of affirmation from the very people (Para was the Joan Baez of Chile to Victor Jara's Bob Dylan) whose democratically elected socialist government was overthrown by our own CIA on September 11, 1973, and replaced with the seventeen year tyranny of General Augusto Pinochet.

Joan Baez never stood taller than when carrying the music of Victor Jara (who was tortured and murdered by Pinochet) and Violetta Para up north to the United States. Her music and her politics were indeed unified, symbolized by her helping to establish Amnesty International on the West Coast.

Joan is now 68 years old and when she is not touring she takes care of her 95 year-old mother, Joan Sr., bringing it all back home.

The Day After Tomorrow is a Grammy-nominated record, and last night's show was a wonderful concert, but I still have these visions of Johanna from the day before yesterday. And she's a hard act to follow.

For musicians, Joan Baez UCLALive! Set List


Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at Greygoosemusic@aol.com