The Queen of Folk returns: Joan Baez at Queen’s Hall

17th March

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

How many women over a certain age do we see in the popular music scene? How many women do we consider to have changed its history?

Joan Baez starts her concert with one of her most beautiful songs, ‘There But For Fortune’. She stands alone against the red backdrop in her black suit, guitar in hands, and, instead of the original “show me a young lad”, sings about a young girl – it is an epiphany.

It takes a while to comprehend that this is the Queen of Folk herself singing on the stage. Active since 1958, Joan Baez has always been considered one of the main voices of her generation. Being as passionate about political and social issues as she is about music, she has always been brilliantly using her songwriting to voice this.

Tonight is not an exception. She dedicates ‘The Times Are A-Changing’ to the school students protesting gun laws in the United States of America; ‘Plane Wreck At Los Gatos Canyon’ to the migrants and refugees; while ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’, from her newest album, is written about Obama’s loss of words during his eulogy for the Pinckney tragedies. She has reimagined the legendary ‘Silver Dagger’ into a ‘Silver Blade’, and now her protagonist is older, more powerful, and takes action after a long time of being fed up with all the injustices against her.

The night sounds just like the 60s revolution that should have happened, and it would be hard to distinguish between her current songs and the ones she wrote back then. She is consistent, both in her lyrical themes, the classic melodic lines of folk ballads, and her guitar solos. Her band consists of her son, Gabriel Harris, on percussion; vocal accompaniment from Grace Stumberg (although partnering is a much more accurate description), and Dirk Powel playing various string instruments: banjo, violin, guitar etc.

Again, it is instrumentation for a folk set. This is a concert for those who enjoy this sort of music, and those only; if such homogeneity allows a potential space for criticism, it inevitably provokes idolisation of Baez’s integrity from a fan perspective as well.

It is not only activism Baez sings about: the sensitivity she conveys is vast and incredible. Whether it is the longing in ‘Diamonds and Dust’, nostalgia in ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, or joy in a cover of Pete Seeger’s ‘Lonesome Valley’, she takes her audiences with her on an emotional journey. No arrogance, just pure intimacy.

Her signature soprano voice sounds different. One can tell it is the voice of an older woman, and it is beautiful.  Some things obviously have changed throughout the years, and the confidence with which she owns her words, her stage, and her music is one of them. It is a wise confidence, yet still the confidence of a rebel.

Image: Steve Jozefczyk via Wikimedia

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