Joan Baez Rekindles ’60s Idealism at the Vic Theater in Chicago

Joan Baez sent sparks of emotion and soulful artistry through the air at the intimate Vic Theater in Chicago on October 14. She appeared on stage just two weeks after the debut of Martin Scorsese’s well-received documentary on Bob Dylan’s rise to stardom, No Direction Home, in which she played a starring role.

Joan Baez, although she was born in the same year as Dylan, began her rise to fame a year or two before Dylan. She was already playing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, when Dylan was just contemplating his freshman year at the University of Minnesota. She’s been on the road ever since.

Many people think of Baez more for her commitment to liberal political causes than for her artistry, but it is her consummate skills as an artist that make her political commitment worth commenting on at all. There are, after all, millions of people who feel passionately about politics, but very few of them can sing like Joan Baez.

Any skepticism about the state of Baez’s main instrument – her voice – was quickly dispelled during the first song, a haunting rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain.” The spare and nuanced accompaniment by guitarist Erik Della Penna and bassist Graham Maby turned the already haunting song into a spine-tingling jaunt through surreal Cold War imagery.

Her voice was strong and mellow, her age and maturity adding nothing negative to the delivery. In fact, the tinge of husky overtones gave a luster and layering to her voice that the early, strident Baez sometimes lacked.

In another demonstration of the fact that clean living and commitment can be good for your earthly vessel, she sang an a cappella version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” that led the audience to roar with applause.

Unlike her ex-boyfriend Dylan, Baez constantly gestures with her body while singing and playing. During the songs in which she put her guitar down and let her band provide the accompaniment, she often used her hands to great effect, almost performing a kind of sign language that perfectly matched the dramatic and melodic movements of the songs and lyrics.

She wasn’t a dancer, but a method actor, using the songs as a platform to communicate stories and experiences. Unlike so much of modern popular music, there were no pyrotechnics – no gyrating hips or exposed flesh to slap the audiences with the notion that they were being force-fed corporate pop-rock. She didn’t wear a strap-on microphone that made her look like a robotic performer in a post-modern religious ceremony. She just stood or sat on her plain wooden stool and sang, using the spaces between the songs to chat with the audience.

Baez bantered with the audience so much that it became evident that she liked the audience, and wasn’t just trying to make them feel that they had received their money’s worth. When she got cold, she asked someone to bring her a hot toddy – with whiskey in it. She got it, and she drank it. She asked the audience to have patience while she went off-stage to change into a sweater.

The concert recaptured the glow of ’60s idealism, both the artistic kind and the political kind. The style and substance was so different from the popular music that is considered current today, that the effect was almost jarring. There was irony, but not the nihilistic, self-referential irony that is the norm. Baez communicated a more old-fashioned definition of irony: the difference between what is possible in the world, and the current situation. The more popular, trendy version of artistic irony current in alternative and even mainstream music induces consciousness of a different existential gap. The absurdity and meaningless of the world is presented as one side of the equation, while the subject’s pitiful attempts to find meaning make up the other side.

Throughout her set, Baez gave the audience a vision of a hopeful and inviting world of music and culture, an art that engages the world of individuals, community, and politics. She seems to have rejected the postmodern isolation of the self from others, however attractive esthetically such a stance might be.

Baez was recently at Camp Casey with Cindy Sheehan, and she gave the audience a brief account. Sheehan, said Baez, had finally found a space where she could breathe and talk among friends. Baez took great pains – ironically great pains – to avoid personally attacking George Bush. She’s rereading some Gandhi, she said, so she’s avoiding the negativity. “I just hope he slows down. George, slow down.” Then a smile, and ripples of laughter in the audience.

Despite the heavy dose of politics, even a member of the Bush family could have enjoyed the two-hour show, which included such highlights as Baez’s own “Love Song to a Stranger,” Dylan’s “With God on Our Side,” and a song Johnny Cash popularized, “Best Friend’s Wife.” She sang both a song by Woody Guthrie (“Deportee”), and a song about Guthrie (“Christmas in Washington,” by Steve Earle).

One of the real treats of the concert was her rendition of Dylan’s haunting ballad, “Baby Blue” during the two-song encore.

As Baez and band head east through Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, they should continue to draw a crowd of both baby-boomers wishing to catch one of their heroes, as well as Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers who grew up listening to their parents’ records.

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