From behind the plum-colored, sky-high Asbury Hall curtains, Joan Baez, lone and lean and of enviable, angular cheekbones, meandered onto the stage. The waiting audience applauded at the sight of her, quickly rising to their feet.
“Coffeeshops, 1958, Cambridge,” were the first of her several spoken words conjuring her rich, folk past and that would skewer the topsy-turvy politics of today. Under a white-hot spotlight, Baez began her 90-minute set with “Freight Train,” all rootsy skiffle and finger-pick fluidity. At song’s end, a fan approached with a gift that, given her chic outfit, seemed appropriate for another, relaxed post-tour occasion (thick knit socks). This Buffalo gig was the final stop of a tour that resumes again in July for several European dates.
“Put your cameras away so you can enjoy the show, and at the end I’ll give the nod,” Joan said at song’s end – all smartphones vanished. Everyone was in the moment, there for poetry, social consciousness and curated folk lyricism.
She was on to Steve Earle’s “God Is God,” a song demarcating the humanistic gulf between what is mystery and what is understood: “God, in my little understanding, don’t care what name I call. Whether or not I believe doesn’t matter at all.”
Among those in the audience was Gail Kratt, overheard speaking to her daughter Zoey on her cellphone before the show. Gail was telling Zoey how the last time she saw Baez was in 1990 at Artpark, pregnant with her. At that show many years ago they received a call just before that show from their ob-gyn telling them that they were expecting a girl. “So this is bittersweet for me,” Gail says.
Baez performed solo for another tune (“There but for Fortune” by folkie/protest singer Phil Ochs) before bringing out her “big band”: Dirk Powell on banjo, various stringed instruments and squeezebox, and drummer Gabe Harris, her son. The ultra-tight trio, each in their own circle of white light, performed “Silver Dagger,” which the singer-songwriter pronounced “compulsory,” one that she made her own in the ’60s when she was known for long and serious balladry. “But in this one no one dies,” she quipped.
The lights came up a bit in the house and Baez exclaimed “What a beautiful hall, and what a bunch of beautiful people.” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” by her famed protégé and onetime paramour Dylan was next on the list, and Baez called for audience participation. When the crowd unloosed a temperate refrain she said “now take the restraints off!” and things went more fortissimo.
“Joan for president!” a fan shouted from the balcony after the completion of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” and Baez, after paraphrasing former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, declared “I like the Jewish guy.” Gabe Harris, later in the set, during a solo, replaced his tweed cap with a Bernie ballcap as Baez placed a bird statue at the edge of one of his drums, a reference to the recent podium-alighting bird in Portland, Ore., at a Sanders event. Politics never strays far from the work that Baez does.
Baez introduced local singer and bandleader Grace Stumberg for Donovan’s “Catch the Wind.” “I have found myself a co-singer,” Baez said, “this is a song I used to do with my sister Mimi.” The harmonies between the singers are sweet and lush, and Baez noted the presence of several of her co-singer’s family members and friends. Stumberg was given hugs aplenty by Baez, Stumberg visibly relaxed as the show flowed on. Her twangy-tinged alto was a good counterpoint to Baez’s voice. Their co-sung “Me and Bobby McGee” was a delight.
Stumberg announced she would be performing a set with her own band following her Baez gig in the Ninth Ward down below. “I’ll be playing in the basement, please come down.” The pair of encore songs, Lennon’s “Imagine” and Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a la Vida,” ended the night perfectly, solidly.
Saturday night in Asbury Hall