Laxson filled for celebration of Joan Baez’ extraordinary life and music
As she herself put it laughingly last Thursday night, Joan Baez has had a “ridiculously long career.” Long and remarkable, and not just because of all the marvelous music she’s made, including her more than 50 albums. It’s been remarkable because for all that time she’s stayed true to her principles and, more than any other modern singer, exemplified the artist as activist.
And she hasn’t quit fighting the good fight. Trim and attractive at 61, with her gray hair cut boyishly short and wearing a colorful three-quarter-sleeve shirt and black jeans, she strolled on stage Thursday evening and proceeded to open her two-hour show by reading a humorous “poem” culled from the many syntactic manglings and malapropisms of George W. Bush. “And to think he was almost elected president,” she said slyly when it was over. The full-house crowd roared in approval.
The show itself was a diverse tour of her life’s work, one that went back and forth in time, from recent songs like Greg Brown’s “Rexroth’s Daughter” to such early tunes as the Spanish-language lament, “El Preso Numero Nueve,” from her first solo album, 1960’s Joan Baez. Throughout she was ably helped by her fine backing band, comprised of David Hamburger (guitar), George Javori (drums and percussion), Byron Isaacs (bass), Rani Arbo (fiddle and vocals) and Richard Shindell (rhythm guitar and vocals).
Naturally, Baez’s voice isn’t the glass-shattering instrument it once was, and at first it seemed tenuous, but as she got warmed up its tremendous warmth and clarity began to emerge. The song that kicked the concert into high gear was a rousing version of that great Robbie Robertson tune, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Uncoaxed, the audience joined in on the chorus, rocking the house with enthusiasm. By and large this was a boomer group that had grown up with Baez, and it was obvious folks admired and loved her.
There were tributes to Woody Guthrie (a lovely version of “Deportee"), classic protest songs both old ("Joe Hill") and new (Phil Ochs’ “There But for Fortune"), a bit of church music ("That Old Gospel Ship") and a bit of Bob Dylan ("It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” sung as an encore).
Perhaps the most touching song of the evening, however, was one written by Dave Carter, a brilliant singer and songwriter who, with his partner Tracy Grammer, had accompanied Baez on tour earlier in the year. Carter died on July 19, and Baez and crew still didn’t seem fully recovered from the loss of this “lovely guy,” in Baez’s words. She sang a gorgeous version of his “The Mountain,” a fitting tribute:
miller take me and miller grind me
scatter my bones on the wild green tide
maybe some roving bird will find me
over the water we’ll ride
Unfortunately, the concert was marred by PA problems. Baez’s sound people never quite figured out Laxson’s difficult but not impossible acoustics. Vocals were often muddy. This was especially evident when Baez broke from singing to read some of her poetry, in which she “channels,” you might say, the thoughts of a 15-year-old Southern black girl. It was an odd choice made more so because we often couldn’t understand what she was saying.
Richard Shindell opened, doing a 45-minute set of mostly his own songs. Some of them are good—Baez later delivered a fine version of his "Reunion Hill"—but some are just, as he said introducing "Transit," "long and weird." And Shindell’s throaty voice doesn’t wear well. The set’s highlight, actually, was his own tribute to Carter, the latter’s own lovely, mysterious "Farewell to Saint Dolores," for which Shindell was joined by the rest of Baez’s band.