REVIEW: Joan Baez , New Theatre, Oxford 19 March 2012

An Evening with Joan Baez

Joan Baez arrived alone onto a stage decked with a settee, standard lamp and a side table with flowers. She sat on a stool, picked up her guitar and sang Steve Earle’s song, God is God (I believe in miracles). A tender rendition, by the end of the first verse, the audience was entranced. This voice, that has sung and spoken about peace and love for decades, was about to tell the same tale again, just one more time. A gentle voice at the start of the evening, the higher notes were a little hoarse (it was two-thirds into the current six week tour), but as the evening moved on, and warmed up, her individual robust voice came through easily.

A reflective gig, she explained that she might have failed Theater School if her tutor had not asked her to bring her “guitar and sing a song, …then I’ll pass you”. She went straight into Railroad Boy, a song of unrequited love, one she learned way back in the Harvard Square Coffee Shops, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Go dig my grave both wide and deep

Put a marble stone at my head and feet

And on my grave put a snow white dove

To tell the world that I died for love

As a 1950s teenager she had walked into a Coffee Shop, saw a man singing and playing a guitar, and said “that’s it”. There was no turning back. Here she is still playing 50 years on.

When she started Farewell Angelina there was great applause. Then she was joined by two musicians, Gabriel Harris on percussion (her son) and Dirk Powell on strings and keyboards. They made an easy, simple, smooth sound together, particularly for the ballads and songs of the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the USA from where she sourced her “early repertoire”. Several songs were comments on the ever-hopeful wish to live without war. God on our side; or Jerusalem (Earle) “I believe the children of Abraham will lay down their swords in Jerusalem”. And then The Ballad of Joe Hill which she dedicated to the Occupy Movement International – “for those who are taking a risk again with non-violent action”.

Bringing the concert into the last decade of singer-songwriters, she sang Elvis Costello’s Scarlet Tide and a particularly touching modern love song called The Ballad of Mary Magdalene (Richard Shendell), which gives a alternative view of the biblical story

Jesus loved me

This I know

But why on earth

Did I ever let him go

He was always faithful

He was always kind

But he walked off

With this heart of mine


But for me, and some others in the all ages’ audience, it was such a pleasure to hear the old ones: Swing low. Sweet Chariot, Catch the Wind (Donovan), Love is just a four letter word (Cash), House of the Rising Sun, and Stagalee which she sang as she lazed out on the settee with Powell playing extraordinary piano breaks, accompanied by Harris’ exquisitely timed percussion. This went straight into Suzanne (Cohen). At this point Gabriel Harris sat on the settee. She turned and said, “You look good there”. A son listening contendly to a mother sing. How often has that happened in their lifespan together. It was a beautiful moment in both image and sound.

And, of course, a concert with Joan Baez cannot pass without Gracias a la Vida where the audience joined in and, Diamonds and Rust, a song that sings of the love affair between her and Bob Dylan. It brought the house down. Three standing ovations later we had heard Virgil Caine, Imagine and Blowin’ in the Wind.


Writer: Anne L Ryan