Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Joan Baez, Sanders Theatre, 3/28/08

Old Folkies never die. Because they live for nights like this -- a Joan Baez concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of Club Passim in Cambridge, held at the venerable confines of Harvard's Sanders Theatre -- which looks like it could be used as the set for Parliament in a Cromwell movie or the trial chamber of the Committee of Public Safety in a movie about Danton. And given the average age of the people around us, two hundred years is a drop in the bucket. It's not often that I lower the age curve when I walk into a concert, but just by walking into the room, my sister Monica, her friend Stephanie and I dropped the average age level to the high two figures.

Age cannot wither nor custom stale. She nervously tunes her guitar because that's what she's been doing for the last 50 years whenever she goes onstage, and it doesn't matter how many times her roadies pre-tune the thing for her--she has to do it herself. Nerves? Habit? Both, probably. She wears a scarf and drinks tea to keep her throat warm, because her voice is not what it was, but that doesn't mean she can't get the same notes out of it. Think of your vocal cords as guitar strings. She used to be able to pluck them to get a note, but now the strings are more delicate, even if you tune them to perfection you won't get the same note you got 30 years ago. So now she caresses those strings--she blows over them like a flautist, and makes them vibrate the note she wants. It’s a breathier sound than her younger voice -- she floats over her youthful sound like a breeze that’s been around the world more times than you can count but can still pull all those old notes up out of the depths.

The elephant in the room. There's no way you're not going to hear at least one Dylan song from this woman; that's a given which she's probably given up fighting years ago. But she only opens the door wide enough to give you a glimpse of the room, and then politely swings it shut. For example -- here's how she introduces "With God On Our Side" :

I learned this next song in 1962. From the author. At a party. It meant a lot to me then, and it means a lot to me now.

Oh to be a fly on the wall at THAT party.

And tonight, along with the "Oh yeah" songs ("Oh yeah--"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") Ms B does only two Dylan songs to three Steve Earle songs, including Jerusalem and Christmas Time In Washington, which always chokes me up. (She has a new album coming out which Earle is producing. "Album; CD; whatever," as she put it.)

Another Dylan Story.

He was staying at my place one weekend and the songs just poured out of him. All I did was force him to eat and tell him to rest. Most of the time he was sitting at my battered typewriter, typing lyrics, making musical notes, and when he finished one song he’d flip it to the floor, put in a clean piece of paper, and start another one. And I happened to notice one of those songs on the floor. I picked it up off the floor. I liked it. And a few months later, when the two of us heard that song come over the radio, and I was singing it [laughter from the audience] he turned to me and said [perfect imitation of Dylan] “Great song -- who wrote it?” (Introduction to “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word”)

And what my sister Monica and I were thinking all night long? "God, does she look like Mum or what?"

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