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Joan Baez - Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 26/2/2019

  by Nicky Crewe

published: 11 / 3 / 2019

Joan Baez - Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 26/2/2019


As Joan Baez completes the final dates of her 'Fare Thee Well' world tour, Nicky Crewe at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester is reminded of just how relevant and inspiring her music is, and, with her career spanning six decades and changing times, finds she still has a powerful message to share.

Last year I missed out on tickets to see Joan Baez on what was supposed to be her final world tour. When a new date in February 2019 was announced, a tail end of the last leg, I bought myself a ticket and waited patiently for my chance to see her. I had seen her in concert about twelve years ago and hadn’t been disappointed. Her music has been part of my life since my childhood in the mid-sixties. My dad was a huge fan of the folk revival and Joan Baez was a special favourite. My own children loved her music, too, as they were growing up. That’s three generations of my family and I recognised a similar demographic in the Bridgewater Hall on Monday night. I doubt there was anyone quite as old as my dad would be now, but there was certainly a mix of fans from across her six decade career. Joan Baez is an interpreter of songs. She has written some memorable ones, including the sublime 'Diamonds and Rust', but it’s her versions of traditional and contemporary songs that are so special. In 2018 she brought out her first album in a decade, 'Whistle Down Tthe Wind', a brilliant collection of songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, Josh Ritter, Anonhi and Mary Chapin Carpenter among others. Her message was as powerful and as clear as ever. She’s been described as a legend, a veteran, and of course she has always been a political activist. Perhaps because her voice was so piercingly beautiful when she was a young woman, in interviews she is often asked about the changes age has brought to her vocal range. For me it has never been about the notes she sang, but about the lyrics. Like Joni Mitchell, there’s a maturity and gravitas in her lower register that brings a freshness and unfamiliarity to her old and new repertoire. She took the stage to rapturous applause and launched straight into ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’. During her set she was accompanied by Dirk Howell on guitar, banjo, piano, mandolin and acoustic bass, and by her son Gabriel Harris on percussion. She also had two amazing Graces with her, Grace Strumberg who shared vocals and harmonies on some of the songs, and Grace Logan, her guitar technician. Whatever the audience’s expectations were, she didn’t disappoint in her choice of songs. This isn’t about a back catalogue, though she can choose from sixty years worth of material. She literally breathes new life into songs of love and protest that continue to be as powerful and significant as ever. She is an inspiration. Standing on stage with her guitar, her silver hair and silver jewelry, her simple outfit of jeans, black jacket and colourful scarf, she looks wonderful. She has such a presence. I’m not even going to mention her age. There are plenty of interviews that do. She looks so comfortable, so at home on stage, so relaxed with her audience. She revealed that she was suffering with a cold and had been to ‘ER’ (A & E to you and me). I often get nervous on behalf of the artist when they share this kind of information, but her vulnerability in admitting her throat problems made her performance all the more remarkable. She has such a distinctive and beautiful voice. Old favourites followed, full of memories and associations for me, and I’m sure for many of the audience. Phil Ochs’ 'There But For Fortune', a song I am reminded of whenever I listen to the world news. 'Farewell Angelina', her version helped me to appreciate Dylan’s surreal lyrics. 'Silver Blade', written for her by Josh Ritter as an answer to the traditional 'Silver Dagger' on her early Vanguard album, is a dark tale for the #MeToo campaign. More Dylan, 'It Ain’t Me Babe'. A song for refugees, Woody Guthrie’s still pertinent and poignant 'Deportees'. A beautiful version of 'Diamonds and Rust' with Grace Strumberg sharing the vocals, as she also did on Kris Kristofferson’s 'Me and Bobby McGee'. Baez introduced Donovan’s song, 'Catch the Wind' as one she used to sing with her sister Mimi (Farina). Then right up to date with Anonhi’s haunting lament for the environment and natural world, 'Another World', a spine tingling performance. 'Fare Thee Well' followed, with no mention of the significance of this last performance in Manchester. Leonard Cohen’s 'Suzanne' was followed by 'A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall'. The audience were invited to join in on the chorus. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had been longing to sing along with familiar lyrics and resisting the temptation for the sake of the people sitting next to me. When life is hard and politics are unbearable, sometimes the only change you can make is through the words of a song. It’s what protest music is all about, and it’s not about anger and fear, but about love. The next song is a perfect example of this and its writer Zoe Mulford was in the audience. 'The President Sang Amazing Grace’ is about Barack Obama’s response to the tragic shootings in a Charleston church. It will move you to tears. 'Joe Hill' reminded us of the endurance of right thought and action. 'The House of the Rising Sun' took us back to folk revival times, Pete Seeger’s 'Darling Cory' lifted the mood with its banjo accompaniment. She crunched cough lozenges on mic and took film of the audience, some of whom were seated behind her, before she sang 'Gracias de la Vida' in Spanish, reminding us of her own Mexican/Scottish heritage. and the final song of the set was 'Blowin in the Wind' and of course we all joined in. The first encore was 'Forever Young', and every word counted, followed by John Lennon’s 'Imagine', now an anthem for more than one generation. Finally she sang Paul Simon’s 'The Boxer', a song said to be written about Dylan. Dylan was very present in the room, and not only in the songs. Baez said she was going to ‘rely on Dylan tonight, who is the best’. I’ve always felt it’s her interpretation of his songs which made them accessible back in the day, bringing out the poetry of his words and images. There was another connection to Dylan though. The Bridgewater Hall replaced the Free Trade Hall, home of the Halle Orchestra, the venue famous for Dylan’s concert with The Band over 50 years ago where he was heckled, ‘Judas’. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the audience had been there too. She was magnificent, and her music continues to be significant. This isn’t nostalgic (‘give me another word for it’). She’s a witness,a story teller, a truth sayer. She has been there when it mattered, on peaceful protests and civil rights marches. The world has changed but it hasn’t yet improved for so many. Baez still gives us a voice, and it’s a powerful and beautiful one, to express our own concerns and anxieties. There were flowers and standing ovations. She didn’t say goodbye, but she did mime going to sleep to us before she left the stage. We will continue to share some of the same dreams.

Also at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

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Joan Baez - Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 26/2/2019

Joan Baez - Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 26/2/2019

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