Folk icon Joan Baez taps vast repertoire, makes old songs new

There’s one thing Joan Baez definitely won’t miss about performing — warming up.
Joan Baez
Joan Baez

There’s one thing Joan Baez definitely won’t miss about performing — warming up.

At age 72, the venerable folk singer, songwriter, painter and activist now spends about an hour warming up her vocal chords each night before a show. Because of this, she’s able to maintain a busy touring schedule — this weekend she’ll finish up a round of 10 dates with her longtime friends the Indigo Girls with performances at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts on Saturday, and Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., on Sunday. In August, she heads to Australia and New Zealand for her first tour there in 25 years.

When she started out performing in Boston and Cambridge in the late ’50s, however, she didn’t need to do any warm ups or vocal exercises.

“In the beginning I didn’t do anything, and now it occupies a ton of my time, working on technique — all the stuff that I will not miss when I finally quit singing,” Baez said recently from a tour stop in Vienna, Va. “It’s exhausting; your voice has to be warmed up at my age, and warmed up especially for each show. . . . Vocal chords are a muscle, and people need to think of it that way to understand it more. If you’re a tennis player, you have to double the amount of time you’re putting in at a certain point, or everything goes loose.”

Old friends

There’s still plenty of things that Baez enjoys about performing live, especially on this tour. She first collaborated with the Indigo Girls in the early ’90s, and the two acts have appeared together on stage intermittently since, including a trio performance of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” on the 1995 live album “Ring Them Bells.”

Joan Baez with the Indigo Girls

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, 200 Hurd Road, Bethel

How Much: $84, $59, $44.50, $34.50

More Info: 866-781-2922,

When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood, Lenox, Mass.

How Much: $69.50-$23.50

More Info: 888-266-1200,

“I haven’t worked with them in 10 years, but it’s been like bicycle riding,” Baez said of the current tour. “I just love them; we do a bunch of songs together too.”

For the most part, Baez tours minimally these days, supported by multi-instrumentalist and musical director Dirk Powell. The two like to keep set lists fluid — while they have a certain skeleton for shows worked out, the two will often switch things up.

“Recently, the guy who plays all the instruments, Dirk Powell, came up with a song played on banjo where he’s singing like a hillbilly, ‘Give Me Cornbread When I’m Hungry,’” Baez said. “So we’ll bump something else out of the concert; that’s how it happens. If I get tired of something, we have to fill it with something else.”

Old songs get new treatments in the live setting, too. “The key to giving good concerts for me is keeping them very, very fresh,” Baez said. “I started doing ‘Barbara Allen’ again, which I first sang in 1959, but I gave it a totally different arrangement. Something like that can be really, really fresh. I love singing it, and that’s usually felt from the audience.”

She’s not concerned with either supporting a new album or trotting out the hits. Although her last record, 2008’s Steve Earle-produced “Day After Tomorrow,” is represented in the set, her popular versions of folk classics like Phil Ochs’ “There But For Fortune” or “We Shall Overcome” don’t always make the cut.

“There are different things that make sense — I don’t always sing ‘We Shall Overcome’; that’s more of a nostalgia trip for people,” Baez said. “But if I were to go to Turkey right now, then it would have a great meaning. So there’s some things — and they come and go too.”

New political causes

In keeping with her activist past, Baez has spent time shedding light on the current political demonstrations in Turkey — she’s been performing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at recent concerts and dedicating the performance to the Turkish people.

Like many of her contemporaries on the ’60s folk revival circuit, Baez was heavily involved with the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War protests and other social and political causes of the time. As the years have passed, she’s remained involved in causes ranging from human rights violations around the world, to protests against war in Iraq, to the gay and lesbian rights movement.

More recently, though, she’s found herself slowing down in this arena to help take care of her mother, who passed away on April 20, shortly after her 100th birthday.

“Many years ago I wore the political and musical hats so consistently, because that’s kind of what was there to do in front of me,” Baez said. “On a large scale I haven’t been seeking out things to spearhead and so on. I’ve spent a lot of time at home with my mom, who just died, because I wanted to learn about getting old and dying, the way people in this country don’t learn about it. I think — although I’m not deeply involved in how to tackle it — I think our biggest problem is climate change and global warming. It’s going to get us before we get it.”

The ’60s were undoubtedly a heady time both politically and artistically, with musicians such as Dylan, Ochs and John Lennon among many others taking up causes. Baez doesn’t see the same level of activism in music today.

“I think the first important thing to recognize is that there will never be another 10 years like those 10 years — it was a political perfect storm, and the gift of writers like Bob Dylan and John Lennon was just unbelievable,” Baez said.

“We’re not going to get another ‘Imagine,’ or another ‘Blowing in the Wind.’ I think there are a lot of songs being written and a lot of songs being sung, but there’s a couple things — in the ’60s we crossed over from the counterculture to being drawn into the culture, and that hasn’t happened now; the stage is not set for that. In the ’60s and early ’70s the music that started of the counterculture became anthems, and every age would listen to it — it had nothing to do with teenagers or grown-ups; it was a communal feeling that we haven’t had back since that time.”

Reach Gazette reporter Brian McElhiney at 395-3111 or [email protected]

Categories: Entertainment

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