July 9 was the night they had to close access to Santa Monica Pier. It was that crowded. Not for a pop idol, but for a legend of modern music-Joan Baez.
The audience was polite and even enthusiastic during the opening set by North Carolina’s Tift Merritt, who had the daunting task of “warming up” the Baez audience. Displaying a professional confidence, she performed songs about relationships, survival, and philosophical musings, from her new album, Buckingham Solo, and received a few shouts for an encore (which did not happen, regrettably, due to time constraints).
Joan Baez followed her band on to the stage, dressed in a long dark gown and white scarf, looking and sounding great. While her band was top-notch, there were some problems with the sound mix, early on, as her vocals seemed to be getting drowned out. Audience members shouted for the sound to be “louder,” not an often-heard request at a “folk” concert.
“I’m gonna have to sing louder,” Baez told the audience. “We can’t turn it up higher-we’ll get blasted off the stage. We’ll just have to modify the level of our voices and instruments.” Trust Joan Baez to have a rational explanation. The audience understood and applauded-and soon, the sound was a lot better.
Baez played a great deal of new material from her most recent album, Day After Tomorrow, highlighting songs written by Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett, (“Scarlet Tide”), “God Is God,” and “Come Back Woody Guthrie” (Steve Earle), Eliza Gilkyson’s “Rose of Sharon,” and “Just the Way You Are,” a ballad written by Dirk Powell from Baez’s band.
Many audience members, the ones who had followed Joan Baez from folk clubs to festivals to anti-war marches, were hoping she’d do more of her classic songs. While she did perform oldies like “Farewell Angelina,” and the union favorite “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” it was toward the end of the set that the Joan Baez of legend came to the forefront.
The band took a rest and Baez was alone on stage, a woman with a guitar. She spoke of the recent actions of the Iranian people protesting the manipulation of their elections and characterized it as “a lesson in non-violence” for the rest of the world. And for them, she launched into a rendition of the song she sang during the 1963 March on Washington:
“We Shall Overcome,” with one verse sung in Farsi.
She followed that with the humorous self-penned “Heartfelt Line or Two,” a song about songwriting. Then the band returned for “Long Black Veil,” and a rocked-up “Don’t Think Twice” which included a dead-on impersonation of Bob Dylan! The crowd was on its feet and Baez, after many bows, returned for an encore with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Gracias a la Vida.”
According to her bios, Joan Baez is 68. But her voice and her spirit are ageless.