Reviewer: Carol Lovatt
It is hard to believe that Joan Baez has been on the touring circuit for well over fifty years but true it is and her final tour offering came to Birmingham last night to the delight of many die-hard fans and music aficionados. Famed on the folk circuit for her emotive voice and powerful anti-establishment lyrics, Baez has lost little of her combative spirit and her belief that music has the power to change the world.
The Fare Thee Well Tour coincides with the release of Baez’s first studio album in over ten years, Whistle Down The Wind, which was released on 2 March 2018. The legendary artist and activist, often associated with the fight for Civil Rights in America alongside Martin Luther King, and closely connected with Bob Dylan, whom she introduced to the music world, still uses her ability to convey a message through song to reach out to the dispossessed and stand up to injustice. It is obvious that Baez sees her role in music as a voice for the oppressed.
With a pared down stage set, initially consisting of Baez and guitar, the concert opens with the classic There But For Fortune, a song full of poignant reflection around hardship and oppression, instantly associated with the hippy era and idealistic rhetoric of the 1960s. Baez’s voice is still as distinctive as ever, although at times it is definitely mellower than it was at the height of her fame – but then that was over 50 years ago. The beautiful God Is God follows which again features just Baez and guitar on a dark stage; it contains powerful words sung with heartfelt emotion. Farewell Angelina follows and at this point Baez has still not said a word until someone in the audience shouted “we love you” to which she quietly responded “ditto”. Baez is clearly a woman who speaks through the music rather than waste time in banal pleasantries.
Tracks from the new album follow and the other two members of the band come on stage at that point, her son ,percussionist Gabriel Harris, alongside Dirk Powell playing a variety of instruments including the ukulele and piano. The album title song Whistle Down The Wind has the sound of a travelling folk song steeped in history but arranged for the contemporary listener. Like many folk songs, Silver Blade tells a story, this time of a woman who takes revenge on a lover and Baez introduces it as a song for the ‘Me Too’ generation who are fighting back rather than being victims – a move towards the empowered feminist female rather than the passive downtrodden mentality. The revolutionary spirit of Baez is in every song. As such, she is much more than just a singer.
Classics such as It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, The Times They Are A Changing, House Of The Rising Sun and Me and Bobby McGee have the audience singing along yet there is plenty of new material interspersed with the old which proves interesting and engaging. Baez cites Deportees, a song about refugees and The President Sang Amazing Grace, as songs which moved her because they were about global and national issues, displacement and gun crime, which she felt passionate about and that she wanted to raise the profile of and highlight through her music. In fact, every song which Baez sings has a message to convey. The stunning Diamonds and Rust is unusually based more around love than protest but every aspect of her work has resonance and meaning. It is clear to see how Pete Seegar, the American singer and social activist who campaigned for workers’ rights, women’s rights and human rights was a huge influence on her. It is an education to see Baez and not just a musical interlude – though as a musician she is outstanding.
Also performing on several songs and on the tour with the band is Grace Stumberg, a singer with a voice similar to Baez’s early higher pitched tones but with a strong country aspect too; she is a valuable addition on tracks such as The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Imagine.
Baez is a musical icon in many ways and her inclusion in the 2017 R&R Hall of Fame is testament to that, not only for her ability to deliver memorable evocative music as a singer and guitarist but also as a person who cares about the world and spreads a message of defiance and humanity. That could be one of the reasons why much of her British Tour is already sold out. Here’s hoping that it does not herald the absolute end of her performing days.
Reviewed on 14 March 2018 and on tour | Image: Contributed