Joan Baez, Brighton Dome (26 Mar 2012)

When I walked into the Brighton Dome on Monday night to hear Joan Baez perform the last of her 21-stop tour of the UK, the first thing I noticed was a sofa on the stage. Next to the sofa was a standard lamp and a table with a bowl of daffodils on it – a familiar and homely tableau. At the front of the stage was a microphone with percussion set up to the left and a keyboard and assorted instruments ranged to the right.

What was going to happen? Was Joan Baez going to sit on the sofa and talk to us?

She had so many stories she could tell us. This is the woman who was at epoch-marking events of the sixties: she sang at the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King made his “I Have A Dream” speech. She performed at Woodstock. Bob Dylan was her lover for two years. Her husband David Harris was imprisoned in 1969 when he made a stand against the Vietnam War by refusing the draft. She was pregnant with their child at the time.

In the event Joan Baez walked onto the stage, simply dressed in jeans and a black jacket, with her guitar and opened the concert with a couple of ballads and then sang Dylan’s With God On Our Side. She still has a beautiful voice, a bit deeper than before, a bit less range, but lovely to listen to. She still looks vibrant and engaged with life. As her voice warmed she varied the pace of the concert singing more energetic numbers like Stagger Lee. She was joined for this on stage by the drummer and a talented and versatile musician Dirk Powell who played the keyboards, banjo, mandolin, accordion and violin as the evening progressed. He also joined her in a couple of the songs.

We were treated to her favourite spiritual Swing Low Sweet Chariot, to Dylan’s Love Is Just A Four Letter Word, The House of the Rising Sun and Gracias A La Vida which she sang in perfect Spanish. These were all lovely and richly musical, but for me the two stand-out songs were her heartfelt version of Steve Earle’s Jerusalem and her exquisite and piercing rendition of Diamonds and Rust which she wrote in 1975 about her relationship with Bob Dylan:

“As I remember your eyes
Were bluer than robin’s eggs
My poetry was lousy you said
Where are you calling from?
A booth in the midwest…”

And she did indeed start to tell us some stories between the songs. There was the story about how Dylan had discarded a song on the floor one evening and she had picked it up and later recorded it. Hearing the song he said to her he was impressed by it and wanted to know who had written it?

“You did, you moron” she replied.
You could imagine her saying that to him.

Another story was about how she was to sing at a Martin Luther King rally and went with his associates to pick him up from the airport. She was expecting much serious talk about politics. Instead the men joshed each other, exchanged rude jokes and ate a great deal including a double portion of apple pie for Dr. King. He then fell deeply asleep at the hotel – he was always tired she said. The crowd were waiting for an hour and more to hear him speak. No-one wanted to wake him so Joan was sent and she sang him first one song and then another and finally he woke up and said: “I do believe I just heard an angel sing.”

And what about the sofa?

About two-thirds into the concert Joan Baez said: “For years I wanted to put a sofa on a stage at my concerts. So two weeks ago we did it – for the first time.” She only sat on it once during the evening, during an instrumental, but her drummer sat there while she was doing a quiet song without percussion. And I thought that is Joan Baez for you. She is always true to herself. A woman of infinite charm and warmth yes, but someone who does things her way and who has shown a lifelong commitment to her political beliefs.

Generously she gave us three encores: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Imagine and Blowing In The Wind. By the end of this memorable concert we were all singing along.

Chloe Greene

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