Joan Baez @ Birmingham Symphony Hall – 1st October 2009

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Symphony Hall is almost sold out tonight — 1600 people, says one of the ushers. Only the top balcony has spaces. The audience is about evenly divided between male and female. I see a few children but otherwise virtually everyone is in the 50 – 70 year old range. There are a fair number of neatly trimmed beards but few jeans — most people are more dressed up than that. The woman next to me has travelled all the way from Kent for the concert.

To my surprise it seems to be an almost completely heterosexual crowd. Back in the seventies and eighties, Joan Baez had a small but solid lesbian following — but there are few visible dykes tonight.

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The speakers, which have been playing a rather anodyne ‘Best of Folk Music’ selection, go quiet and an elegant slight figure in a black leather jacket and red scarf walks onto the stage. She looks good, and at least ten years younger than her 68 years — an observation confirmed by the shout of “You look wonderful!” from somewhere near the front row. The crowd erupts with a roar of appreciation. The band — John Doyle on guitar, mandola and vocals; Todd Phillips on bass and vocals; Dirk Powell on fiddle, banjo, piano, accordian, mandolin and vocals; and Gabriel Harris, Joan’s son, on percussion walk onto the stage and they launch into ‘Flora, the Lily of the West’, a song dating back to Joan’s second album in 1961. Loud applause and then onto the next.

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The next song is a new one from the latest album, an Elvis Costello composition called ‘Scarlet Tide’. The lyrics are interesting — I’m struck by the line about ‘Brokers who break everything’ and I resolve to check them out later. Joan’s voice is still strong and I can hear and understand every word, although as the evening goes on I am aware of how many songs have been rearranged to suit a lower register. Irritatingly a number of latecomers arrive during this second song and the little trail of Brummies who don’t seem to realise that arriving late is rude to both the performer and the rest of the audience continue to wander in until after eight o’clock.

These first two songs have set the way that the evening progresses. The majority of the songs are old — sometimes very old, interspersed with a handful of new material. Joan occasionally talks between songs, but not all that much. It’s a solidly competent show delivered by an experienced performer, but there’s little sense of her wanting to build any particular relationship with the audience. They’ve come to hear the songs — she gives them what they’ve come for — end of bargain.

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Joan has been around for a long time — at one point she says that ‘Some of you will know that this is the 50th anniversary of my tuning my guitar’. She talks about falling in love with ballads as a teenager — ‘all with the same theme, love and misery’. Many of the songs she sings tonight are ballads from that early period, generally a pleasure to hear although I found myself wondering whether her mature voice actually fit with the lyrics of ‘Silver Dagger’ which asks the lover not to ‘sing love songs, you’ll wake my mother’ and declares that she won’t be his bride. It’s a song better sung by a young woman, perhaps.

Although the audience probably know most of the words to most of the songs, there’s no singing along and no invitation to do so. This may be wise — having watched other old folkies try to get a Birmingham audience to sing, it’s not an easy thing to do!

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Joan’s singing of Bob Dylan’s ‘Farewell Angelina’ provides one of the highlights of the evening, with the surreal images swirling round the auditorium as she sings.

A couple of the songs (‘La Llorona’ and ‘De Colores’) are in Spanish. These get a noticeably less enthusiastic response from the audience than does the rest of the repetoire.

Interestingly there are few specifically political songs. I suppose ‘Scarlet Tide’ and Steve Earle’s ‘God is God’ are vaguely political, but the only song tonight that reflects Joan’s political and political song-singing past is ‘Joe Hill’, halfway through the evening. Otherwise the emphasis is on ballads and love songs.

The audience seem to be most familiar with the songs of the late seventies and eighties. The distinctive introduction to ‘Diamonds and Rust’ gets applause as does the introduction to ‘Love Song to a Stranger’, but the equally recognisable introduction to ‘Long Black Veil’ gets no response. ‘Love Song to a Stranger’ forms another one of tonight’s highlights. Joan’s voice soared and at this point there was the first sense I had of the audience singing along to a song which in some sense told the story of all of our youths — ‘passionate strangers who rescue each other from a lifetime of cares’.

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There is a single moment of uncertainty during the concert — muddled words to ‘There but for Fortune’ — but otherwise this is a consummate professional who provides a good evening’s entertainment. Interestingly, the audience clap just as much for the song that goes wrong as for all the others and I find myself wondering whether that is, in fact, a bit insulting to the performer. Doesn’t it make it seem as though we don’t care whether things are good or bad? I watch Joan’s face at the end of the song and wonder whether she’s thinking the same.

The set ends with a fast and upbeat version of the Dylan song ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, Joan and the band bow and leave the stage, the audience does the predictable clapping and cheering, and the band return for the expected encore. They launch into ‘The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down’ and for the first time tonight Joan gets the audience singing — well, sort of — joining in somewhat tentatively on the ‘Na, na, na, na, na, na’ chorus bits. She was wise not to try to get them doing very much of this!

The band finish with an an acapella version of the gospel hymn ‘Angel Band’, the five of them standing together in a circle and singing in four part harmony. It’s a good end to a good evening.

Joan Baez – Set list, 1 October 2009

Flora, the Lily of the West
Scarlet Tide
God is God
Silver Dagger
Farewell, Angelina
Just the Way You Are
La Llorona
Old Gospel Ship
Catch the Wind
I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill
Love Song to a Stranger
There but for Fortune
Forever Young
Diamonds and Rust
De Colores
Long Black Veil
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Angel Band

Review – Betty Hagglund
Photos – Karl Bright

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