Live Music + Gig Reviews

Joan Baez @ Corn Exchange, Cambridge

24 February 2012

“We’re all very nice people underneath these wrinkles,” pleaded one audience member just before the lights went down at the second night of Joan Baez’s hotly-anticipated UK tour. Yet this is the generation who organised, the generation who called for banning the bomb – the generation who, in Baez’s words, were willing to “take risks.” The hubbub in the cavernous Corn Exchange was one of anticipation, awaiting one of the most iconic and political singers of the twentieth century. This was going to be an event to remember.

Not one for spectacle, however, Baez unassumingly slipped onto the stage without anyone really noticing where from. “I remember this place,” she mused, “how could you forget it?” And with that, she was off. The first lines of God Is God, from 2008’s 3-time Grammy-winning Day After Tomorrow, were met with eager applause, which swelled, as if some of the audience were only just rediscovering spontaneous whooping. Despite all her wry smiling, Baez knew she deserved it.

Baez’s voice has matured richly – the piercing beauty of her higher notes has given way to the mellow beauty of fuller, deeper humming vibrato. It added gravitas and worldliness to the serenity of Be Not Too Hard, adding genuinely new dimensions to the classics.

Some of the higher choruses were dropped an octave, but nobody begrudged her that – pushing a hundred minutes without interval is challenging for any vocalist, let alone a septuagenarian whose songs are written in a high register. While this meant a little throatiness in places like Railroad Boy, nobody seemed to mind.

The low-key instrumentation was a resounding success – multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell receiving rapturous applause for his impressive juggling of accordions, guitars, banjos and violins. The thumping bass drum, meanwhile, drove an undulating progression through Farewell Angelina, which had several to their feet in applause. Elsewhere, the banjo-‘n’-bongo combination turned Lily Of The West into a ‘jazzed-up’ ballad. Yet Baez revealed a more pop-like streak with piano ballad Just The Way You Are – more Shania Twain than Laura Marling.

Apart from her striking voice, Baez’s two winning qualities were her devilishly sharp fingerwork and warm humour. The former ratcheted up the tension in There But For Fortune, the latter diffused it – self-deprecatingly changing lyrics of Diamonds And Rust to “fifty years ago” in tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of her longevity. It really felt like “an evening with” Joan Baez, not just another gig.

Baez’s setlist never felt like a retrospective – the soundtrack to the protest movement taking on new meaning when she offered her support to the Occupy movement. Her cover versions – notably a folkier rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine – carried her own stamp. The only criticism might be that while it was Dylan-heavy (Blowing In The Wind receiving another standing ovation), it didn’t leave room for Baez’s own signature – We Shall Overcome missing entirely.

Yet this is small criticism of an evening to remember. Understated and warm, yet commanding and almost magisterial, Joan Baez brought the audience to its feet on numerous occasions, and on this performance, more than deserves her iconic status.

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Joan Baez @ Corn Exchange, Cambridge