On Thursday evening, I did something I’ve been doing for about 45 years, I heard Joan Baez in concert, and it was as good as ever.
Birmingham Symphony Hall is a very special place. I used to have a season ticket at the old Town Hall in Birmingham, back in the days when Simon Rattle first came to conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Over the decade here was here they got better and better and it exposed the awful acoustics of the Town Hall. It’s a nice historic looking building but if you have a seat under the balcony then you get a pretty muffled version of events.
I first heard Joan Baez in the town hall in about 1963 or 64; I really can’t remember which. I do know I had to queue all night to get the tickets and I sat in the front row. I can’t remember all the songs she sang but she did lose her place part way through and had to ask the audience which ones she’d done, she had a list of songs such on the topside of her guitar. Maybe it was a trick to get rapport with the audience, but it worked, she had everyone in the palm of her hand and that almost instant bond with the audience has been there ever since.
After the concert, because I was sitting in the front row I was able to dash through the door into the artist area and interviewed Joan for the university student newspaper. I have actually washed the hand that shook her hand since then, but I know which one it is.
Years later Simon Rattle persuaded Birmingham to build Symphony Hall. It is a masterpiece of sound engineering. When they built it the architect said it was the biggest perfect hall he was prepared to make, any bigger, any more seats and the sound would have been worse.
It is so much better than anywhere else I have been that it is hard to explain. I remember once listening to Cecilia Bartoli, she doesn’t use microphones or anything like that. At the end of the concert she did a piece where she sang to the people sitting in the choir sets behind her. As she sang the song she turned though 360 degrees three times. The second third time I closed my eyes as she sang, and it was impossible to tell which way she was facing, the sound quality did not change at all, whether it was coming straight from her mouth or bouncing off the back walls.
As soon as the place was built I started hoping that Joan Baez would sing there one day, I just wanted to hear that voice floating through the upper air in that place. For a couple of years, every time Joan toured she played in places like Warwick university and didn’t come to Birmingham, but when she did it was magic. Her voice really just flew through the hall, like a banner flying in the sunshine; it just makes you feel good. Joan obviously liked it too; she kept talking about the hall as the concert went on and at the end she turned off the mikes and sang, just by herself, with no band and no guitar. I just loved it, her voice and the hall was everything I’d expected. She let it go a bit, singing a song that rally let the high notes rip, floating right up there, I’m so glad I heard it back then before I started to go deaf.
Last night, I thought, maybe she is getting older; she looks a little stiff when she walks on, but the rest is the same. The rapport with the audience is total and that makes the concert a great experience, being in the middle of a thousand people who are having a spirit lifting experience, is something you don’t get too often.
She sang a few of the old songs, like ‘The night they drove old Dixie down’ and Diamonds and Rust. That’s been fun over the years; I think when it first came out there was a line ‘Twenty years ago I bought you some cuff links’. Now it’s ‘Forty years ago’.
This time she had an assistant who kept taking off her guitar after each song and bringing on a new one. Usually Joan takes about a minute after each song re-tuning. She makes jokes about it but this time it only happened once. She must have a fantastic ear because most guitarist that I’ve heard don’t re-tune between songs.
We did have one minute of twiddling the knobs and plucking. ‘I’ve been tuning this guitar for fifty years’ she said. ‘I know some of you have been here through it.’ Yup that’s me – ever since her first concert in the UK.
Times change, though she didn’t sing that. In that first concert she sang ‘Don’t think twice – it’s all right.’ She did it again this time but it was jazzed up, bouncing along almost like a celebration not a lament. I remember the first time I heard Bob Dylan sing one of his songs to a completely different tune; it was a huge shock, but a revelation too. I guess it’s not a surprise that Joan can do it too.
She made jokes, about how much she likes mournful ballads where people get heartbroken and die all the time; in fact at one point she sang one verse of a spoof version of ‘Silver Dagger’ in which damn near everyone died.
There was a nice moment when she talked about her mum and dad getting remarried after a couple of decades of divorce. Her dad was ninety at the time and she sang ‘Forever young’. Given the ages of her parents, the same might apply to Joan; if she goes on like this we could have a few more years yet.