Review: Joan Baez Live in Seattle
Joan Baez – Woodland Park Zoo – Seattle – Aug. 13, 2009
I wish I could say Joan Baez and I go way back, but I was born in ’77 and her career had already been going strong for two decades. My relationship with her work has all been a continuous game of catch-up. Still, seeing her onstage, I wished I’d been there for all of it – from the Civil Rights rallies to the sets at Newport and beyond. Some people outgrow their own legacies. They move on or progress, or they hold onto the dream in a sad, sorry way that feels over-hung with nostalgia, or whatever that emotion is. Joan Baez transcends all that. Standing there watching her sing “Diamonds and Rust” for what was, no doubt, the eighteen thousandth time she’s sung it, seeing how she still seems to wring some certain truth from it, I thought perhaps what sets her apart even still is that most people are details. Joan Baez is the big picture. If that makes sense.
But first, it rained.
Not that rain is notable in Seattle, land of rain. A town where the first thing many out-of-towners say upon arrival is something along the lines of, “I’m surprised the sun is shining here” or, “Of course it’s raining in Seattle.” We’ve had 27 days of sun in a row this summer, though. Even when the clouds have come, we’ve all stayed dry. Now that it’s finally back, this wasn’t just any rain. It was the kind of rain where even locals pulled out their umbrellas. It lasted over an hour, as we all waited in line in our ponchos and boots, resigned to the truth of the matter: once you’re wet, there’s no point of running for shelter.
Behind me in line, women who had been at Woodstock made the correlation. “But this time I’m not sliding through the mud on my belly.”
When she’d get onstage, before the rain finally gave up, Baez would make a similar comparison. Then she’d lean into her version of Eliza Gilkyson’s “Rose of Sharon,” which she recorded for last year’s Steve Earle-produced Day After Tomorrow, smiling broadly after the line, “The rain is over and gone.” Indeed it had lifted by then.
She moved “across several decades,” but kept returning to Day After Tomorrow. She told an awful joke, which was more charming than funny, and I’ll spare you my version of it. She played “Joe Hill” (the audience sang along) and “Long Black Veil.” She played “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright),” tossing in her best Dylan impression at the end. I’ve giggled along with plenty of Dylan knockoffs through the years, but hearing Joan do it was priceless. That was her last song before a very brief encore of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (crowd-wide clapping and joyful swaying; even a few soppy, soaked souls singing along on the na-na-nas).
She played about half the show solo and half with the full band. She was surrounded by incredible players – John Doyle on mandola and guitar, Todd Phillips on bass, her son Gabriel Harris on percussion, and the great Dirk Powell on all things even vaguely Louisianan (fiddle, banjo, keys, squeezebox) – but all I really wanted her to do was unleash that powerful voice. Of course, she didn’t need to strip away the instrumentation. “Christmas in Washington” was remarkable, as was “Blessed Are,” and on and on.
Then – which seemed somewhat impromptu, since someone came out and handed her a lyrics sheet as she was readying for the final bow – she and the boys closed with an a capella rendition of “Angel Band.” Next to her earlier performance of “Pilgrim of Sorrow” – a capella without the band, Joan delivered some of the saddest, most mournful vocals I’ve ever heard wrap around those lines – it was one of my favorite parts of the show. It was, in fact, stirring enough to make us forget about the cold and the wet, to lose track of the mud and all the other details.