What a privilege to spend 90 minutes listening to Joan Baez from the second row of the Arlington Theater (thank you, UCSB Arts & Lectures)! With appropriate song and still-beautiful voice and brief but intimate introductions, she took us back to 1959 coffee houses in Harvard Square and before, up through the draft-resistance and anti-war movement and into the present with her black T-shirt that read “Nasty Woman” on the front and “No DAPL” [Dakota Access Pipeline] on the back. The musical itinerary covered Paul Robeson and a Marian Anderson spiritual; Pete Seeger and a Woody Guthrie anthem relevant today (“Deportees”); her own Prison Trilogy and Diamonds and Rust, both also still relevant; nods to modern songwriters Tom Waits, Richard Thompson and, less successful, Josh Ritter; classics she has made her own, House of the Rising Sun and The Boxer; and never far away, Bob Dylan, here in It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, With God on Our Side and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. Just imagine all we have seen and all she has lived through, a person of principle never far from the action, injecting grace and art into sordidness, not least the campaign season we are suffering through.
In person she was charming, with her good looks aging but attractive, her trademark-sexy pixie haircut in place and, despite 75 years, the ability to stand and sing with nary a break and only an occasional sip of tea. Her retinue could not have been more down-home and honest: her “co-singer” was her personal assistant, short and heavy, underdressed; her roadie was a young woman in flats and a complementary white “Nasty Woman” T; her band, the “Bad Hombres,” consisted of her middle-aged son Gabe on percussion and a wizard instrumentalist who played banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, accordion and piano with equal virtuosity. He also happened to be the stepson of Joan Hartman, who is running for 3rd District Supervisor in Santa Barbara County; his request for our votes made the political subtext of the concert that much more real.
Baez’s voice has inevitably lost range from the days of her early ballads, but she knows better than to push it. She left guitar theatrics to her sideman but handled her own accompaniment, starting with the opening Love Is a Four-Letter Word, with remarkable ease. She was always comfortable with what she was singing and she made us comfortable, and more.