Saturday, October 17
If I hadn’t already seen Joan Baez offer an extraordinary performance (just two years ago) then I’d be here now saying that her recent gig was incredible. And it was good – I stayed for the whole show, I hung onto most of the words, the band (multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell and her son Gabriel Harris on percussion) was wonderful, warm, sympathetic and – again – we heard all of the right songs, from the Dylan covers (It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, Seven Curses) through to her own giant hit, Diamonds and Rust, via spirituals (Swing Low Sweet Chariot) and coffee-shop folk classics (Elizabeth Cotten’s Freight Train). There were songs by Richard Thompson and Tom Waits, Phil Ochs and Robbie Robertson – it was an incredible line-up, just thinking of the material, exquisitely chosen songs.
But, it was not as good as the 2013 show. Yes, she performed the waiata Purea Nei again and it was flawlessly pronounced. One or two new songs were added in, a couple have been subtracted but, as is the way with a repeat performance – an encore appearance – it just can’t be quite the same, can’t be quite as good as the thrill of that first time.
I thought she was lacking in energy this time – still remarkable, still wonderful, I love where the voice has gone, despite sounding shakier than it did two years ago (noticeably so – this tour feels like the final victory lap) and I’m amazed by her stoicism. But the banter wasn’t as plentiful, nor as enthusiastic. This one felt like going through the motions whereas the 2013 show was a constant revelation – seemingly for both Baez and audience.
Her assistant, Grace, joined the band for a few more numbers – a welcome inclusion because she’s a great singer, but she’s also there to cover for Baez’s lack of energy and the fading of her own voice.
But the individual highlights were still impressive – it’s (still) the best version of Seven Curses I’ve heard. It’s (still) amazing to get to hear her sing Diamonds and Rust. And her rendition of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down was not only a fine singalong to end the show, it felt like a better version of the song than The Band’s original, certainly no mean feat.
When I saw Leonard Cohen a second time – I had to leave halfway through; the show was the same, it had lost that incredible impact, all feeling of specialness sapped. This wasn’t the case with Baez, it was a terrific show and first-timers would be right in thinking it was wonderful. I’m glad I got to see her again – particularly as I had interviewed her, and felt privileged to have that opportunity – but it just didn’t have the clout of that first time when she performed (essentially) the same show. She seemed tired. And not just from the “too many marches” – about the only line of banter she repeated this time. It just wasn’t quite the night it was two years ago. And hey, fair enough, you can’t knock it out of the park every time. That she came close enough was still special and rewarding.