Friday, June 17, 2016

Joan Baez's Birthday Bash

Joan Baez cannot hit the high notes any more but she can still pluck your heart strings.
This contradiction made for a sometimes awkward, sometimes touching 75th birthday concert which aired on PBS’ Great Performances last week. The show (also airing online at featured what we used to call a Cavalcade of Stars (who could say no to Joanie?) and they performed the songbook of our lives as well as hers.

It featured everyone from Stephen Foster (Hard Times with Emmy Lou Harris) to Lennon-McCartney (Black Bird with David Crosby).  The casting was impeccable (Mary Chapin Carpenter on Donovan’s Catch The Wind and  Mavis Staples on Aint Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around)) but the execution showed more rust than diamonds.

It was hard telling what made this into a somber, funereal procession rather than a music party. She wore a black tuxedo and everyone seemed to have gotten a costume memo to wear black also. Song selections didn’t help. From God is God by Steve Earle, it was the mournful Phil Ochs’ There But For Fortune and even Freight Train seemed downbeat.

Mary and Emmy Lou, who are still in full voice, seemed to hesitate to take lead roles in their duets so they, along with Judy Collins, often struggled to find sync with Joan. 

After reminding people how she once sang Swing Low Sweet Chariot to awaken Dr. Martin Luther King from a nap (and performed it again at Woodstock) Joan chose to render it as a lullabye that must have caused some people in the Beacon Theater to nod off. You were hoping the stage curtains would part to reveal The Rebirth Brass Band to kick the song into high gear.

Mavis Staples tried to pick up the tempo but The Indigo Girls stayed in the background.
Richard Thompson was the next to genuflect on She Never Could Resist a Winding Road.

Queen Joan has certainly earned her title to folk-rock royalty with her voice and her undying devotion to political causes. No one has more battle stripes from singing on behalf of the poor and oppressed around the globe. Was there a civil rights or anti-war rally in the 1960’s and 1970’s (and most subsequent decades) that she did not headline?
Would there even be a Bob Dylan without her?

Jackson Browne got the party going with a touching, After The Deluge and Nano Stern surprised everyone with a rollicking, Gracias a la Vida.

Then Joan hit her stride when Paul Simon arrived (“We are talking serious legends department now, “ she quipped).  Their voices blended smoothly on “The Boxer,” and the crowd came alive as they sang:

And I am older than I once was
And younger than I’ll be
But that’s not unusual
No it isn’t strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same.



  1. I missed the show but I regularly tape it so I'll have to see if I have it. Thanks for the review, Frank.

  2. Thanks for another great review. We watched the program air and taped it as well. We enjoyed it, though still surprised by how old we are all becoming. However Joan has aged very well.