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Folk legend Joan Baez draws reverent crowd

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Folk legend Joan Baez draws reverent crowd

You could have heard a pin drop all night before she started each song.
Folk legend Joan Baez draws reverent crowd
Joan Baez performs "Gracias a la Vida" during the tribute show "Joan Baez: 75th Birthday Celebration" at the Beacon theater in New York, Jan. 27, 2016.
Photographer: Hiroyuki Ito/The New York Times

The silence of reverence filled The Egg’s sold-out Hart Theater as iconic ‘60s singer and activist Joan Baez prepared to sing her first song. You could have heard a pin drop all night before she started each song. There were no calls for favorites, no whistles or shouts, just respect for the living legend as she moved through song after song for 90-plus minutes.

She looked and moved like a person far under the age of 75. No sitting on a stool for this performer, wearing sneakers, jeans and jacket while picking at her acoustic guitar. But her vocal chords have aged. She sings an octave or two below her old soprano voice, and only occasionally reached high to emphasize a phrase.

But her songs were no less intense or poignant, the lyrics from 40 years ago newly relevant and fresh for today.

Early in the show she sang “There but for Fortune,” a Phil Ochs song that served her well when she recorded it in 1964. She used her falsetto on the last verse, and again toward the end of the show, when she sang the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Here she ended the song with the line, “Coming forth to carry me, you, us, even Trump, home.”

She prefaced the song with a note about praying for Trump and his supporters to help make them healthy: “We’d all be better off.”

Before singing “Silver Dagger,” she talked about her period of learning ballads, where she only sang “long, slow, sad tunes where someone had to die or be miserable.”

Not every song was political, such as her bouncy version of “Me and Bobby McGee,” though you could argue that it is a song about freedom. Along those lines she followed with Richard Thompson’s “She Never Could Resist a Winding Road.” She switched it to first person, clearly she saw it as a song about her own life.

But even the personal, introspective folk songs she managed to turn political with the slightest move. She ended the show with Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” And when she added a repeat of the line “The fighter still remains,” she turned the song on its head.

Her delivery of John Lennon’s “Imagine” made it feel like it was written yesterday.

On presidential candidate Bernie Sanders: “He’s a Jewish guy with a balding head and he is just knocking them flat. ... I never used to talk about presidents, but he is so cool.”

Three players supported her, coming and going through the show, one on acoustic strings, one on hand drums, and one accompanying Baez with the vocals. None of them were musically necessary, other than to give her short breaks.

She talked about singing recently in Birmingham, Alabama, and recalled her time there in 1965, during the Civil Rights struggles, conjuring images of separate lunch counters and water fountains. “It would be sad to see it all go backwards,” she said, urging the audience to fight for voting rights issues. She followed with the song “Birmingham Sunday.”

Before singing Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees,” she asked us to see the word “generosity” as the key word with immigration. She wound down with her last official “folk song” of the night, Pete Seger’s version of “Darling Cory.”

A Baez show requires at least a small presence of Bob Dylan, another icon she is tied to from the ‘60s but less so today. She sang two of his tunes, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” early in the show, and “Forever Young” as the final encore.

Joan Baez has lived an epic life. Without writing a song in decades, she manages to sell out venues like The Egg today. Her music and her activism are tied together: It is both elements that make her a giant persona, and its both things that people came to experience Friday night.

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