Joan Baez's 75th Birthday Concert Attracts All-Star Lineup for Low-Key Celebration
It seemed appropriate that the concert celebrating Joan Baez's 75th birthday was a low-key, intimate affair. Yes, it featured an all-star lineup of performers including Paul Simon, Damien Rice, Jackson Browne, Mavis Staples Emmylou Harris and many others. But the modesty of the event -- which mostly featured duets matched with one or two instrumental accompanists -- suited the venerable performer who's spent as much time and effort on social activism as she has on her musical career.
Taped by PBS for a broadcast on Great Performances in June, the evening began charmingly with Baez -- looking decades younger than her age -- walking on stage, camera in hand, taking shots of the cheering audience before promising that she would be back in a few minutes.
She began the show with two solo acoustic numbers: Steve Earle's "God is God," with its opening lyrics -- "I believe in prophecy/Some folks see things not everybody can see/And once in a while, they pass the secret along to you and me" -- essentially defining her career; and Phil Ochs' "There But for Fortune," which she originally recorded in 1964.
From there it was mostly a series of musical collaborations, each one prefaced by enough hugging and kissing onstage to mark it as a veritable lovefest. Featuring friends and musical collaborators old and new, the selections encompassed folk, gospel and pop, with forays into Latin and Irish music.
The performances were not always polished, with the recent blizzard perhaps cutting into rehearsal time. Her harmonies with David Crosby on "Blackbird" were hardly pristine, but the duet was still affecting. And she and Judy Collins cracked each other up over the outdated lyrics while singing "Diamonds and Rust": "They made cufflinks back then," Baez pointed out.
But the evening featured far more stellar performances than missteps. Prior to performing "She Moves Through the Fair" with Rice, she said, "I knew that if anyone could drag an Irish ballad out of me, it would be this man" -- their rendition, with him on harmonium, was haunting. "Catch the Wind" featured stellar harmonies with Mary Chapin Carpenter. Stephen Foster's 19th century "Hard Times Come Again No More" was delivered with fierce urgency via a duet with Emmylou Harris, who prefaced it by saying, "I was one of many, many women who wanted to be Joan Baez."
"This is one of the songs we don't remember," Baez joked, before Browne joined her and Harris on an impassioned rendition of Woody Guthrie's "Deportees." He later returned for a duet of "Before the Deluge," about which Baez said, "It's almost more relevant now, as we head into the abyss."
Although Baez's once pristine soprano voice has inevitably changed, she's effectively shifted to a lower register and is still able to hit the high notes when necessary. Her vocal chops were well on display in an a cappella duet with Mavis Staples on the spiritual "Oh, Freedom" and during her solo turn on "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
Introducing the latter, she said that she had once sung it to a sleeping Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an attempt to rouse him from a long nap he was taking in front of a group of supporters. "I think I've heard the voice of an angel," he murmured upon stirring.
Although many in the crowd were no doubt hoping for a surprise appearance by Bob Dylan, he was nowhere to be seen, but Baez did have some fun at his expense.
"This one is from Ireland or Scotland, but Bob Dylan says he wrote it," she joked in her introduction to "Seven Curses."
"Great song, great song," she said with her best Dylan impression before laughing. "Couldn't help it," she added.
Richard Thompson provided a stirring guitar solo during their duet of "House of the Rising Sun," as well as shared vocals on his own "She Never Could Resist a Winding Road." Of the latter, Baez said, "I sing it in the first person." Chilean singer-songwriter Nano Stern added a piquant violin solo to their performance of the Spanish-language song "Gracias a la Vida," which Baez has been performing since 1974.
Baez and Simon's performance of "The Boxer" drew appreciative cheers from the baby boomer crowd with its reworked lyrics about "getting older" and a reference to "New York City winters bleeding me."
A minute or two after she and Simon left the stage, Baez returned, to be greeted by the audience spontaneously serenading her with "Happy Birthday." She responded with an encore including "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Forever Young." The all-star finale that is de rigueur for events like this was eschewed, befitting this deeply principled artist who has always gone her own way.
God is God
There But for Fortune
She Moved Through the Fair
Atch the Wind
Hard Times Come Again No More
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Oh Freedom/Turn Me Around
The Water is Wide
Don't Think Twice, It's Alright
House of the Rising Sun
She Never Could Resist a Winding Road
Before the Deluge
Diamonds and Rust
Gracias a la Vida
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down