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55 Years On: Joan Baez In Concert

When I was given the opportunity to see Joan Baez is concert, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Despite not being very well acquainted with her music, her reputation preceded her. I wrote previously (Lot’s Wife Edition 4) about the massive influence she has had on the world: introducing it to Bob Dylan and her instrumental role in the Velvet Revolution. It’s been 39 years since her last tour down under, and I was honoured to be seeing her perform.

The show opened with supporting act Kate Fagan, a country-folk singer from Sydney. A perfect choice to support a legend, Baez’ influence on Fagan was obvious. Performing songs from her most recent album, Inner Nature, the audience was visibly moved by her style and poetry. Aesthetically, her music seemed simple, with slow, soulful melodies, but in paying close attention to their lyrical content, the depth and emotion Fagan had infused into each song became more evident.

Though she only performed for 20 minutes, Fagan’s performance helped to set the tone for the evening. I must admit I was a little disap­pointed to see Fagan leave, though the headliner was worth the wait.

Before she even had the chance to begin, Baez and her band received a standing ovation. As she started, it was obvious how her style had changed over her 55 years of performing. Her broad American accent was more pronounced, and her voice deeper and more hoarse, even as she sang. But rather than take away from her performance, this change added a new depth to her music. Her music became more Dylan-esque (which seemed appropriate given their personal and musical history).

Not since my teenage emo phase have I been so moved by a perfor­mance. Their cover of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Deportees’ brought me to tears, and it was clear that the song held great significance for Baez (she is a descendant of Mexican immigrants).

Dirk Powell, one half of Baez’s band, risked stealing the show. His engaging personality and musical prowess overshadowed Baez in some respects, taking lead vocals on ‘Give me cornbread when I’m hungry’, and switching seamlessly between seven different instruments.

Rather than compete, there was a great respect and humility among the performers. Baez even introduced her personal assistant Grace (or Baby G as she is known among the band) to the audience, and invited her to perform backing vocals. “She folds my jammies and gets me coffee, and then we found out she could sing,” Baez said.

More than 50 years of activism have not dampened Baez’ spirit. Wearing her views on her sleeve, she spoke about the selfish motivations behind war, and how little some things have changed in her lifetime. But her hope and idealism still shone through as she contrasted the sorrow of ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ against the hope and spirit of unity portrayed in ‘From Little Things, Big Things Grow’ and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’.

The encore (and second encore) was a bitter-sweet event, after over an hour and a half of original songs and covers. The final song of the night, ‘Diamonds and Rust’, brought the audience to their feet for another standing ovation.

Silence fell as Baez left the stage, the room filled with emotion. Everyone in the audience hesitated to speak, but were filled with her contagious hope, and moved by her music. This may have been the only opportunity I will ever have to experience the legend. Like everyone else, I walked away from the show speechless and indescribably different.

If you missed the chance to see Joan Baez in concert, I strongly recommend seeking out a copy of one of her performances. Her charisma and musical skill cannot be understood through her studio albums alone. The real Joan Baez experience comes from the audience interaction, and the perfect imperfections that give her work so much more depth.

Verity Thornton

The author Verity Thornton

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