Joan Baez and Cleveland bid each other a bittersweet goodbye: concert review

October 4, 2018

Joan Baez and Cleveland bid each other a bittersweet goodbye: concert review

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Dear Mr. Roget: When you update your thesaurus, would it be possible for Joan Baez to have her own volume?

I know there are words like “great” and “legend” and “astounding” and “witty” and “intelligent” and “thoughtful” and “involved” and “dedicated” and “talented” and all that. But sir, I promise you, they’re just not enough. Not by a long shot.

Baez, who brought her Fare Thee Well goodbye tour to Playhouse Square’s State Theatre Wednesday night, left the sold-out crowd happily confused: Do we laugh at her humor, fume along with her outrage, drink in her beauty (inside and out), revel in her voice, reminisce at her memories, envy her courage, bask in her glow or -- and I admit this one seems paramount now that the show is done -- cry at our sense of loss?

I confess, all those emotions and more poured through me, Mr. Roget. But sense of loss is dominating. Who will step up? Who will fight for what is right? Who will be our conscience?

Since the late 1950s, Baez has had the role. Vietnam. Woodstock. Civil rights. Migrant workers. Charleston. Parkland. Yes, even the Brett Kavanaugh hearings – she was in Washington during them, marching in the protests – those are the times that Joan Baez has been a champion for those in need of one.

Granted, there are some who do not agree with her, who think she’s a shrill and solo voice in the wilderness. But they were not among the throng in the State Theatre Tuesday evening as she serenaded us through songs like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall″ and “Forever Young,″ by her one-time lover, Bob Dylan.

The other covers – Phil Ochs’ “There But for Fortune,” Tom Waits’ “Whistle Down the Wind” (the title cut off her current – and she says probably final album), Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “The Things That We Are Made Of,″ John Prine’s “Hello in There″ and the first Pete Seeger song she ever learned, “Darling Corey,″ were like haunting whistle-stops on a clickety-clack tour of a career that began as a folk singer in the late 1950s.

Her own songs, while not as numerous a part of her catalog, are nonetheless evidence that her talent is as big as her heart. That includes the haunting homage to her mother and son (that would be Gabe Harris, who is the percussionist in her band), “Honest Lullaby,″ which is so full of love so deeply personal that it manages to cross the boundary into universal. The same holds true for her biggest hit as a songwriter, “Diamonds and Rust.″

The new music, including a Josh Ritter-penned tune called “Silver Blade,″ shows a more strident Baez. It’s especially pertinent today, in light of the accusations of sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh.

Early in her career, Baez told the crowd, she had a song called “Silver Dagger,″ in which the title character was a dagger-wielding mother determined to protect her daughter from predatory men. In the new tune, the rapist’s own blade is used by his victim to slay her attacker. It’s an interesting take from a woman who has spent a lifetime advocating non-violence, but in a way, it seems to show the degree to which we have been pushed.

Her versions of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,″ Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” (with the stunning voice of tour assistant and backup vocalist Grace Stumberg adding both harmonies and leads) showed that maybe at 77, Baez has to drop a key a bit. But the intensity and breadth of the lyrics survive and even thrive.

The stage was stark – usually occupied only by Baez, her son, and Oberlin-born, Cleveland Heights-raised multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell, and occasionally Stumberg – but it was a testament to the power of the music itself. Lasers and pyrotechnics are gimmicks real music – and real musicians – do not need.

Morever, that starkness sometimes became an instrument of its own, such as when she sang a song called “Another World.″ Baez stood alone on centerstage, two simple spotlights angled down on her, creating the image of angel wings, as she sang about a journey to the world that follows this one.

Her ethereal “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,″ was a fitting finale, even if she did joke that non-discriminatory angels were comin’ for to carry her, us and, “yes, even Donald Trump” home.

Maybe Baez is ready to go. If anyone has earned a rest; 77 years is a lot of rounds in the ring, fighting for everything she believes in. But Mr. Roget, if you’re still there and listening, can you please provide one more synonym?

It’s for the word “stay.”

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