Saturday, 10 March 2012

A Blast from the Past - Joan Baez in Bristol

It was 1968, Argentina, I was fifteen, newly in love with the most handsome boy on the planet, and somewhere we heard Joan Baez sing The House of the Rising Sun accompanied by her guitar playing.  I had been studying the instrument since I was ten, but had never heard a sound like this before.  He gave me one of her LPs for Christmas...

...and so I 'discovered' folk music, and what to play on my guitar that instantly created a warm atmosphere in a gathering of friends, and yes, made me feel less shy and more popular.  The songs she sang told sad stories of lost love, murder for love unrequited and gentle protest, and her voice had a ringing quality from low to falsetto which combined wonderfully with the sound of the cords of a Spanish guitar.  Soon after that he gave me this one -

- and I would sit and listen to both records over and over until they became what they are now: beloved and scratched. 

The relationship ended when he went to study abroad, and I put the records away because I couldn't bear even to see them.  But I still loved the songs, and eventually I started playing them on the guitar again.

I followed what the media told us about her life, the protest marches, the marriage to a conscientious objector - it was the time of the war in Viet Nam -  their son and the causes she spoke out about.  Throughout all this time she continued to tour like the true professional she is, her gentle charm and humour coming across as loud and clear as her lovely vibrato voice.  Thinking about her gave me a sort of melancholy and nostalgia for the past and my innocent youth, and that was essentially where she stayed - in the past.  Until this week.

I learned last November that she was on tour and that she would be in Bristol in March, and on impulse I decided I had to see her in concert for the first time, however much it cost.  £80 later I had secured two tickets up in the gods, for that was all that was left, even back then, and last week I finally went with a friend.

She's 70, ultra slim and smart, quiet at first; I feared that the Bristol audience was the problem.  I'm told we're not the most appreciative of audiences and it's rare for standing ovations to be given.  Both she and we relaxed after a few songs, and thereafter she played non-stop for two hours without an interval. 

She had an entourage of three - Dirk Powell who played many different instruments and had written one of the songs she sang, and Gabriel Harris on percussion.  Then there was a young girl of 23 - we were told it had been her birthday the day before - who was both very short and well rounded, with her hair in a ponytail which swung and bounced every time she came on stage to swap guitars for Joan, unplug the one she had been using, plug in the new one and stamp on some pedal on the ground... and this was every single song, for Joan seemed to alternate her guitars constantly.  It became comical to watch this procedure with the 'little' girl marching onstage carrying a guitar that was virtually taller than she was.  Joan seemed very fond of her.

Her voice has lost some of its vibrato, strength and high notes, but she has modified her interpretation of the songs to allow for this, and the ringing tone was still there.  Remembering as I do the many "concerts" I gave in the sitting rooms of friends and relations over the years till I came to England in 1973, as time wore on I found it harder and harder to repeat the same old songs over and over again.  I knew the ones I would be asked to play, and I was heartily sick of them after a few years.  I have therefore always felt a sense of wonder how professional singers can go on stage night after night and make it sound fresh every time.  They can't be thinking of the money in the bank all the time, surely?  Joan seemed to thrive on the attention, and gave four encores, ending with the one she had sung and I had known since the very beginning, written by ex-boyfriend Bob Dylan:  Blowing in the Wind.

She got her standing ovation and we clapped till our hands were sore.

While writing this post I have learned (with shame, because I should have known) that her percussionist Gabriel Harris is her son.  Nice touch.

As I left the theatre and headed towards the car park with my friend - who had never heard her before and tells me she's now a total convert - it was strange to reflect that I felt that I was the one who had aged inside while she had somehow stayed the same.  Overwhelmingly though, I had been warmed by being part of a crowd of several hundred people spontaneously singing together to songs they remembered and loved. 

Long may she continue to sing.


Photo Finish -
From Lonicera's non-digital archive

Rugby, and Fuerteventura, Canary islands



Joyful said...

I absolutely love folk music and Joan Baez in particular though I've never seen her live. I'm so glad you had an chance to see her.

Sara said...

I really loved Joan Baez as a teen. I am envious that you have heard her live in concert. Glad to hear she is still touring and singing well.

Tina said...

How cool is that :) I like Joan too. She often plays with James Taylor. I would love to see either one or even better both together :).

I hope you are getting a good Spring!! :) David's mum is coming in June. I cannot wait :)


Lonicera said...

You often hear people say that some artist or place 'was their childhood' - and when I was half way between being a child and a woman I felt defined as a person by folk music, starting with Argentine folk sung in Spanish, to Joan Baez first, then Judy Collins, Pete Seeger and then when in England Tom Paxton, and Scottish and Irish folk groups, and eventually Steeleye Span. I'm sad that as a genre you hardly hear about it these days. Was Gordon Lightfoot defined as folk at the beginning? Because I adored him too.

Lonicera said...

Thanks Sara - I was amazed that at 70 she's still touring, and consider myself very lucky indeed to have managed to see her.

Lonicera said...

With james Taylor, another of my favourites? Oh now I'm really envious that you've seen them on TV! I didn't realise they played together.
Lovely to have David's mother visit you, hope you've settled in well to your new home!

Lonicera said...

Penny - forgot to mention Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Seekers, which I also adored... But Joan was always the first, and when playing the guitar I felt I was her.

Matvi. said...

Just so your readers may have a hint on what Joan Baez meant for many people around the world..
During the early and hardest times of Pinochet's dictatorship, she offered a clandestine concert (very unplugged, just she and a guitar)in a church. Never had the chapel been so full before. Next day she was kindly requested to leave the country. Somewhere I have a cassette of that (clandestine recording as well).

Lonicera said...

Matvi - I'm torn between envy that you were there and relief that I was not... I didn't know this about her - what a brave thing to do. I know she sang Victor Jara songs.
What a unique event that must have been. Thank you very much for telling me.

Vagabonde said...

Just read all your back posts. Your cold sounded bad – I hope you are totally recovered. Your new camera takes good shots – what type is it? I like your picture of the swan. The paintings of Ilya Repin are so fine – I did enlarge the pictures and the Reply of the Cossacks is one I had not heard about - they were a funny bunch. That DJ you talked about fits the “eccentric” British model quite well.
That must have been quite a concert to see Joan Baez live. My husband and I saw her during our honeymoon when she was singing in Monterey at the 1967 International Pop Music Festival there – many others were there too like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, The Who, Janis Joplin, The Mamas and the Papas and so on. We have most of her records, the early ones at least and now I am buying them in CDs.

Lonicera said...

Thanks for all your comments Vagabonde (I too have caught up with you, but I gather we can no longer leave comments? Couldn't find the gizmo at all).
I'm fine now, but my partner John hasn't really recovered, and bronchitis plus heart condition in an 84 year old worries me very much, but there's not much I can do except monitor - he's one of these proud people who won't take advice.
My camera is Canon 7D, with video facility, etc - but oh so heavy. I've just bought an automatic monopod to encourage me to avoid camera shake, but really I should be using a tripod most of the time. I'm enjoying finding out what it can do, which is coinciding with my learning more about Photoshop and what it can do. I'm in seventh heaven when I'm mucking about with images!
That concert on your honeymoon sounds like it was to die for. I loved the Ms and Ps too...
I do appreciate the way you read the backlog of posts - not many people do that.

Joyful said...

Caroline, I love all the singers you've mentioned in comments including Gordon Lightfoot. I don't know if he was classified as folk artist from the beginning as I only came to listen to him when I grew older. Joan Baez though is my favourite of all. After your post I went looking to see if she would be in my city but so far I don't see a tour stop. Perhaps later in the year.

Reddirt Woman said...

I think "The House Of The Rising Sun" was the first song I learned on my guitar many years ago. I was a young woman of the folk music age and thought I was a pretty good singer and player for my family and the occasional 'friend'. Fortunately I never played on a larger stage or I might never have admitted to ever having played and sang...

I feel like the dinosaurs (that you are welcome to 'steal') after you reminding us that Joan Baez is 70. OMG has it been that many years???

Lonicera said...

Thanks Helen - virtually all you say applies to me too!!

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