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Live Review: Joan Baez

26 September 2015 | 1:08 pm | Guido Farnell

"A rare audience with an important voice that continues to speak to the generations."

The word that springs to mind tonight is ‘vintage’ as we watch aging baby boomers and a few curious youngsters shuffle into Hamer Hall. 

At 74 years of age Baez, with a red scarf wrapped around her neck, looks radiant when she graces the audience with her presence. She starts with a fine cover of Freight Train and accompanies herself on a delightfully finger-picked acoustic. Despite the size of the concert hall, Baez’s performance feels immediately intimate.

Recalling recording Silver Dagger in a filthy New York hotel back in 1958, it’s with a certain amusement that Baez regards her younger self as a rather serious folk musician who sang songs that involved heavy decisions and the risk of death. As Baez thinks about the past, it has to be said that on all accounts it looks like it has been pretty fabulous. There is of course only one person who could lay claim to having marched with Martin Luther King, introducing the world to Bob Dylan and being good friends with Václav Havel who sparked The Velvet Revolution. She even helped Mandela celebrate his 90th birthday and dated Steve Jobs back in the '80s.  

The iconic folk singer carved her musical career from recording her own tunes but also many covers. Tonight’s show includes quite a few of Steve Earle and Dylan tunes with Jerusalem and Don't Think Twice, It's All Right among the many highlights of the 90-minute set. Surprisingly, a stunning rendition of Tom Waits' Day After Tomorrow makes the setlist. Baez’s upper register has undoubtedly faded but she more than makes up for it with the emotion she is able to convey.  

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The standards — Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Give Me Cornbread When I'm Hungry — hit more rootsy notes, the latter inspiring multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell to thrown down his banjo and dance with Baez as her son Gabe Harris drops a big percussion solo. Still smarting from her appearance on Q&A, she sums up the experience gently but firmly with the line, “I might be a pacifist, but I’m not an idiot.” As expected, Baez retains the sober, dignified and respectful voice of consciousness and protest that emerged in the '60s and her passion is undiminished. Talking land rights, Baez recites the lyrics of Goanna’s Solid Rock over a didgeridoo drone. 

House Of The Rising Sun and The Boxer take us back in time but it’s the joyous classic Gracias A La Vida that adds a flourish of South American charm to the mix. The night comes down with a standing ovation as Baez brings Eric Bogle’s haunting And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. A rare audience with an important voice that continues to speak to the generations.