Concert review: Joan Baez, Civic Theatre

By Graham Reid

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Singer Joan Baez.
Singer Joan Baez.

Joan Baez wears her legend lightly and with grace. Few performers could mention a friendship with Martin Luther King or tell an anecdote about being backstage at Woodstock in Joe Cocker's trailer ("I was pregnant at the time with this one," she laughed, gesturing towards her percussion playing son Gabriel Harris) without sounding self-aggrandising. Or, in an unannounced acknowledgement of her surroundings sing in te reo - from lyrics on paper - without coming off as patronising.

But Baez is a rare one and in many of her signature songs she appeals to aspects of our better selves. She sings of humility and faith (Steve Earle's God is God), empathy and gratitude (There But For Fortune), the power of unity (the "organising" union hymn Joe Hill) and hope in times of despair (Earle's Jerusalem given added poignancy considering current events in that troubled arc of instability).

For all that, Baez rarely errs into sentimentality and her reading of John Lennon's Imagine - with a lovely piano part by multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell, the quiet power behind her throne - was spare, poignant and moving.

It's an easy song to overplay, but Baez - at 72 - is too well schooled for the easy, emotion-tugging option.

If that once angelically crystalline voice has lost some of its power and control in those upper registers which were once her natural home, that hardly mattered because - aside from an idiosyncratic treatment of Swing Low Sweet Chariot which she said she'd once sung to wake a weary Dr King - Baez imbued songs like the traditional Long Black Veil with a dark gravitas.

Inevitably the long shadow of Bob Dylan was present (It's All Over Now Baby Blue up early) and her exceptional treatment of his Forever Young - again eschewing sentimentality for an elegantly simple treatment of a lyric which sounds lifted from Ecclesiastes - was heart-stopping. And she gently tweaked her own Diamonds and Rust about that relationship to remind us half a century had passed since those days.

Tellingly too, in her tour programme Baez has no photos of her younger self, just of her as the mature woman of today. She is laughing in almost every one. That infectious optimism, self-assurance and dignity - coupled with well-chosen songs which had celebrations of life alongside death ballads - sent her loyal, respectful and enthusiastic audience home with that same sense of joy and affirmation.

One thought: Would it be too much to expect someone - theatre management or the promoter - might introduce artists? Again last night the well-received opening act Kate Fagan from Australia, and Baez herself, walked from the wings unheralded. It seems amateurish no one takes it upon themselves to invite us to welcome them.

Who: Joan Baez
Where: Civic Theatre last night

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