By Maureen Daye Pietoso & Franco Pietoso
On January 27th, an enthused sold-out audience at New York’s Beacon Theater broke into an impromptu chorus of Happy Birthday to the most radiant matriarch of the folk world- Joan Baez.
The concert was held to celebrate Baez’ 75th birthday, and she defied her years by oozing vitality throughout the nearly two-hour program. With a broad smile, Baez looked positively aglow. She wore black slacks and a matching jacket, appropriately a traditional New York color scheme for the Avant Garde. Her peppered black and gray hair complemented her ensemble, and she appeared fresh.
As always, Baez was topical in both word and deed. While making her entrance onto the stage before even singing, she had snapped a photo of the audience with her smart phone, setting the tone for the evening.
A wide range of guests who included friends, collaborators and contemporaries from her lengthy career spanning more than five decades each performed alongside her and showed her warmth and adoration.
Joan and Judy Collins Photo Credit: Franco Pietoso
We love Joan too. She is not just a folkie, but an activist and humanist. We think it’s great that she partnered with Amnesty International for her upcoming tour that kicks off later this month.
Her birthday concert was a virtual Who’s Who of famous names such as: David Crosby, David Bromberg, Jackson Browne, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris, the Indigo Girls, Damien Rice, Paul Simon, Mavis Staples, Richard Thompson and Nano Stern.
With everlasting vitality, Joan performed more than two dozen songs, including old staples and unexpected rarities. The concert was recorded by Thirteen Productions for WNET New York for broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances series sometime in June. I highly recommend that you see it.
You will then see for yourself that Joan’s singing was positively magical. I heard someone in the audience comment that Joan did not sing in the upper register, as she was famous for. True, she sings in the middle one, and the sound is sweet and a pleasure to my auditory senses.
My sole criticism during the evening was that there were some technical glitches involving the sound. We managed to strain to hear every last word, but missed some of the comments.
Now, there were many great moments during the show, and I’ll share some of the highlights.
David Bromberg was the first guest to accompany her, and did so on “Freight Train,” a song written by Elizabeth Cotten. I came to know this song through a rendition that Jerry Garcia once recorded, and loved it!
The last performer to accompany Joan before the encore was Paul Simon. Together they sang Simon’s beloved song, “The Boxer” including the added appropriate lyric: “now the years are rolling by me, they are rocking evenly. I am older than I once was, and younger than I’ll be, that’s not unusual. No it isn’t strange, after changes upon changes we are more or less the same.”
That got a charge out of the audience!
There were special moments virtually all night long.
David Crosby added his vocals to “Blackbird.” It was exciting to hear them sing this particular Beatles’ song together. It had a casual feel, as if we caught Crosby and Baez singing together for the first time without an audience.
One of my personal favorite sentimental moments was Baez’s dedication of Donovan’s song “Catch the Wind” to her late sister Mimi Farina. The sisters famously sang that particular song together as young women in the beginning of their careers. Mary Chapin Carpenter joined Joan for this moving rendition.
Baez brought songs out from the ‘70s that she said “are more relevant now.”
With Jackson Browne she sang Browne’s 1974 song “Before the Deluge.” I really enjoyed when Jackson sang Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” with Emmylou Harris and Joan. The song about the tragic death of unnamed deportees remains relevant to this day. Kudos to that trio!
Joan and Judy Collins Photo Credit: Franco Pietoso
Joan and Richard Thompson took turns singing versus of his ballad “She Never Could Resist a Winding Road.” Joan sang her verses in the first person.
It has been a long trip, Baez told the audience.
Indeed. I have been following Joan since The Rolling Thunder Revue, as a little girl, aged 9. My parents Mel and Zelie Prussack have taken me to see Joan many times. Therefore, I knew the words to the next song I want to touch on.
Joan sang her biggest hit, “Diamonds & Rust” along with Judy Collins. There was seemingly some fun-hearted competition between the two, as Collins voice showed-off her soprano and hit high notes. This is called peacocking in the entertainment business.
“Diamonds and Rust” is a chestnut heavy with Dylan history, considering Baez wrote it after they broke up and then later admitted it was written about her relationship with him. It was a hit in the top 40 U.S. pop singles chart.
Collins slightly flubbed some of the words in “Diamonds and Rust” as she and Baez traded verses. Then, Joan had signaled Collins to stop singing, but she failed to listen. While Joan sang the faux ending, “I’ll take the diamonds,” Collins sang the true ending, “I’ve already paid.”
Baez jokingly responded, “you sneak” to Collins.
They seemed so sisterly, laughing about the guffaw.
Joan covered Dylan twice. She sang a note-perfect rendition of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” with the Indigo Girls. It was excellent, but I wished they would change up the game a little, and add another Dylan great like, “Visions of Johanna.”
I’ll share another personal wish now. I wished that Dylan would have surprised Joan with an appearance given their history. I would want Joan to feel the joy that she brought to her audience and all the lives she’s touched through her songs and activism. Enough said!
Later, Joan covered Dylan’s “Forever Young,” the concert’s finale, and a very appropriate milestone birthday choice.
It was powerful to hear this music and to be part of the celebration. I really missed the late great Pete Seeger. We Shall Overcome was missing from the show too, and it would have been a good fit with Pete.
Happy Birthday, dear Joan. We hope to be in the film of the show when it comes out! Even if we’re not, it will be wonderful to catch this show again and again. In fact, we’re inspired to try for tickets to your upcoming tour.
“God is God”
“There But for Fortune”
“Freight Train” (with David Bromberg)
“Blackbird” (with David Crosby)
“She Moved Through the Fair” (with Damien Rice)
“Catch the Wind” (with Mary Chapin Carpenter)
“Hard Times” (with Emmylou Harris)
“Deportee” (with Jackson Browne and Emmylou Harris)
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
“Oh Freedom” (with Mavis Staples)
“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” (with Mavis Staples)
“The Water Is Wide” (with the Indigo Girls and Mary Chapin Carpenter)
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (with the Indigo Girls)
“House of the Rising Sun” (with Richard Thompson and David Bromberg)
“She Never Could Resist a Winding Road” (with Richard Thompson)
“Before the Deluge” (with Jackson Browne)
“Diamonds and Rust” (with Judy Collins)
“Gracias a la Vida” (with Nano Stern)
“The Boxer” (with Paul Simon and Richard Thompson)
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (with Grace Stumberg)
A PORTION OF THE PROCEEDS FROM THE SALE OF THESE PRODUCTS GOES TO AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL, WHO WILL BE WORKING WITH JOAN ON HER CURRENT TOUR TO RAISE AWARENESS OF DOMESTIC HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS