Joan Baez / Thea Gilmore
Royal Albert Hall, London •••••
October 2nd, 2008
It’s a delight to report that, in the incredible fifth decade of her singular career, a Joan Baez gig retains its urgency and vitality, feeling less like a contrived ‘greatest hits’ package than a valuable opportunity to access a living, breathing anthology of folk music history. Occurring in a landmark year that has already seen Baez perform at Glastonbury and share the stage with Nelson Mandela at the latter’s birthday party gig in Hyde Park (an appearance which, with sad inevitability, received rather less press attention than that of Amy Winehouse on the same bill), her tour in support of her latest album Day After Tomorrow always promised to be a particularly special occasion and so it proves. While our mainstream media may persist in retaining a greater reverence for 25 year olds who consistently fail to make it to their own gigs than 67 year olds who consistently do, a rapt crowd at the Royal Albert Hall – their ages ranging from 10 to 70 (at least) – demonstrate no such perverse inclinations, responding to Baez with genuine warmth, love and appreciation throughout. “Thank you, Joan!” calls a voice from the stalls at one point. “It’s been my pleasure and joy all these years,” Baez touchingly responds.
The most recent beneficiary of Baez’s commitment to supporting new generations of singer-songwriters, Thea Gilmore provides a terrific supporting set, rousing the initially reticent crowd (“You’re not in church!”) with her particular brand of charm and a progressively rocky set, featuring some material from this year’s Liejacker, including the Baez-covered ‘The Lower Road’. Baez’s own set then opens with the venerable ‘Lily Of The West’ and proceeds to take us on a heady journey into all the areas of the folk repertoire that she’s explored and popularised over the years, progressing from multi-verse Child ballads through 1960s protest to contemporary work, along with the occasional unanticipated detour (such as a delightful rendition of Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’). Clustered around Baez, an all-acoustic trio – John Doyle on guitar and mandolin, Todd Phillips on bass and Dirk Powell on banjo, fiddle and mandola – bring rich bluegrass textures to the material, and, at one point, even help Baez divest herself of a troublesome bracelet that gets caught on her guitar strings.
Among the many highlights of the night are a beautiful performance of the rarely-performed traditional ‘Fennario’, a Dylan suite featuring ‘Farewell Angelina’, ‘God On Our Side’, ‘Love Is Just A Four Letter Word’ (with Baez’s patented Bob impersonation), a great ‘Long Black Veil’, and a stirring ‘Joe Hill’. A shivers-down-the-spine a cappella ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ – during which Baez at one startling moment turns away from the microphone to sing without amplification directly to the audience members behind and (way) above her – ushers in her solo section of the set which also includes a sublime ‘Mary Hamilton’ – as devastating now as it was when it appeared on her first album in 1960 – and Phil Ochs’s ‘There But For Fortune’, which benefits from an inspired gender-switch that sees the “prisoner,” the “hobo” and the “drunkard” become female.
Predictably, it’s the ’60s-era material that gets the most vocal reception, but Baez’s renditions of the recent additions to her repertoire are equally strong and, as ever, she gets the oldest and newest songs interacting seamlessly. A slowed version of Eliza Gilkyson’s ‘Rose Of Sharon’ brings out the song’s delicate eroticism more effectively than the album version, and a generous selection of Steve Earle tracks (‘Christmas In Washington’, ‘I Am A Wanderer’, ‘God Is God’, ‘Jerusalem’) are all powerfully delivered. Along with the presence of Gilmore (who returns for a singalong ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ at the encore), the inclusion of contemporary material stops the show from becoming what Baez wryly terms “a nostalgia trip.”
With her “achingly pure soprano” now deepened to a richer and even more expressive instrument, Baez is in superb voice throughout the night, shrinking the massive venue to coffeehouse intimacy, and deflecting the reverent response with wit and characteristic self-mockery as she playfully conjures the iconic image of herself as a “barefoot waif” stepping out onto the stage for the first time 50 years before. Overt political hectoring is kept to a bare minimum, though, while tuning her guitar, Baez does pause to observe that “if I could do this and talk at the same time I could run for president.” Mainly, though, she allows the eloquent songs to speak for themselves, commenting only that “they’re needed today.” No simple wallow in past glories, the show serves as a kind of practical demonstration of the richness and relevance of the folk continuum. On this magical and inspiring evening Baez generously offers us the warmest, most accessible (and fun) musical history lesson you could wish to experience.