Joan Baez's '60s folk spirit proves relevant to today's audience
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Easily classifiable as 1960s folk royalty, Joan Baez shared her enchanting voice and evergreen passion for non-violence and social justice with a receptive and embracing crowd at the Michigan Theater on Tuesday night.
As one would expect from Baez, her set consisted of folk ballads including reinterpretations of classic songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, The Band, Elvis Costello, the Animals, Donovan, Johnny Cash, and John Lennon, as well as renditions of traditional American folk ballads mixed in with her own songs. She is also still bringing her hopeful, yet realistic, sense of social responsibility to the game at 70 years old. Baez was one of the voices of civil rights-era music, and the stories and messages she sings of remain relevant today.
Ann Arbor was the second stop on her current tour with her band mate Dirk Powell, an accomplished folk and traditional American musician in his own right, who accompanied her on all different kinds of stringed instruments including guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and piano. Baez performed one of his songs, “Just the Way You Are,” at the show.
The set included her original songs “Sweet Sir Galahad,” which was one of the songs that she performed at Woodstock in 1969, and crowd-pleaser “Diamonds & Rust,” a look back on her musical and romantic relationship with Bob Dylan as a younger woman.
Although Baez mostly sings songs written by others, she puts her own spin on them, and one gets the sense that she sings them to express her own personal feelings about politics, injustice, love, and imagining a better world. The songs are still relevant today. During the show, she called the Rolling Stones song “Salt of the Earth” “an old song but a new idea” that “is appropriate for the occupy-everythings,” she said referencing ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests.
And while introducing “There But for Fortune,” a Phil Ochs song that she popularized in the '60s, Baez briefly mentioned the experience of getting arrested during protest. She advised the crowd to take risks on one’s own terms and that “crowds won’t help if you haven’t made a decision for yourself.”
During the last verse of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” she cracked up the crowd by mimicking Dylan’s distinctive voice.
Baez is also known for her interpretations of traditional American songs, such as her rendition of “Flora, the Lily of the West,” which is said to have origins in Irish folk music, and well-known spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which Baez picked up after “I got a tape from a woman in the deep South, and that’s how I learned how to do it,” she explained to the crowd at the show.
During the show, Baez paid tribute to songs that inspire her, including Donovan’s “Catch the Wind,” Elvis Costello’s “Scarlett Tide,” Johnny Cash’s “Long Black Veil,” and encores of The Band’s “Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Baez seemed to be having a good time at the show, occasionally taking a moment to compliment the audience for making it fun for her. And they returned her admiration. By the end of her encores, she had received three standing ovations.
When Baez fan Tracey Easthope was a kid, “my parents took me to see her, and she sung a lullaby to my sister in the front row. It was so wonderful to see her again. I thought it was wonderful that she sang and talked about social issues just like she did so long ago. She continues to be an important figure,” she said.
Cindy Waidley of Adrian only started listening to Baez in the last 10 years. “It was so inspiring to see someone singing with so much hope for so many years, even when those hopes (like the anti-war stuff) don’t get realized in a real way. After 55 years, she’s still working on her voice and she’s still singing with hope. How great it that?!” she said.