Sunday night Adele and I heard Joan Baez at the (nearly) sold-out Fox Theater, a restored to full ornateness movie “palace” in downtown Oakland, where she was appearing to benefit the Innocence Project.
Adele first heard Baez the spring of 1960 when, long-haired and barefoot, she had played for mid-double-digit dollars at Brandeis, and some jocks, who would have preferred Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, threw beer cans at her. I first saw Baez in 1965 when she came to Philly with Bob Dylan, who was show-casing his not yet recorded “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden,” and “It’s All Right, Ma.” Adele does not remember who she was with, but I was with a law school classmate to whom I stopped speaking when, a few years later, he led the prosecution for possession with intent to sell of someone who was close to me.
Adele and I first saw Joan Baez together in 1968. We were leaving Coffee Cantata, a Union Street café so hip that Steve McQueen wooed Jacqueline Bisset there in “Bullitt,” when a woman with (apparently) newly shorn hair emerged from a nearby beauty salon to the accompaniment of an over-excited male cosmetologist exclaimed, “Yes! It really is Joan Baez.” We did not hear her sing live for another decade. It was at San Francisco’s cavernous Civic Auditoreum, on an occasion whose details neither of us recall.
Anyway, from the last row of the Fox’s mezzanine, Baez looked and sounded fine and seemed in good humor. She accompanied herself on guitar and, on most numbers, was backed by her son, an unobtrusive percussionist, and a fellow who skillfully played a variety of stringed instruments. On several numbers, a young woman — a belter — added a second voice and extra energy and, once, Baez’s daughter-in-law exuberantly danced.
Baez sang “Silver Dagger” and “Diamonds and Rust.” She sang four songs by Bob Dylan and one each by Woody Guthrie, Kris Kristofferson, Paul Simon, Richard Thompson, and Tom Waits and one she had learned from Pete Seeger. She sang against war and slavery and prisons and the exploitation of migrant workers. A couple times (to applause) she mocked Dylan and I thought, C’mon, Joan. It’s been 50 years.
To me, Baez is not a dynamic performer. Her actual singing does not move me nearly as much as her presence, her enduring moral consistency and courage, and the worthiness of the causes to which she has devoted her life and career. (Adele disagrees with me. She believes Baez’s voice “exquisite” and her singing “crystal clear, deeply felt in content and straightforward in delivery.” I suspect Adele is right.)
I wondered what Baez would say about the election but as of the middle of her second encore, when we left, if was nothing. She did wear a “Nasty Woman” t-shirt and her accompaniests wore those that said “Bad Hombres”; but maybe she was for Jill Stein or maybe she meant it when, midway through the show, she said, “No one should run for office who hasn’t spent at least two days in jail.”
She herself has spent over 30, but I am not so sure how well she would work with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.