Joan Baez saunters alone onto the stage of the Royal Festival Hall, sits at the microphone and strikes up with Handsome Molly, a song with the opening line ‘Well, I wish I was in London..’. If that’s not savvy song selection, I don’t know what is.
This legend of folk music hardly needs to sweeten her audience, however, who are rapt from the moment she arrives all the way to the end of a nearly two hour set.
Baez has no new record to push – the last studio album being Day After Tomorrow released in 2008 – but with more than 50 years of performing and recording under her belt, she’s hardly in dire need of even more songs from which to select tonight’s setlist.
She tells us that she’ll be playing some songs she hasn’t sung for 30 years and, perhaps encouraged by this, as the night flows along the audience become more and more confident in shouting out requests.
Switching between performing solo and with a band of two musicians and a backing singer, Baez runs through classics and less familiar tunes. There’s the ever essential nod to Bob Dylan with songs including Farewell Angelina and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, a smattering of songs in Spanish, including the rousing singalong Gracias A La Vida and her interpretations of traditional works such as Lily Of The West and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
Highlight of the night for me was a dark, earthy, haunting retelling of The House Of The Rising Sun complete with bass solo and and exotic vocal flourish at the final line.
Baez acknowledges how much her voice has changed over the years and explains how she’s had to rearrange her songs for ‘the new voice’. The lower and deeper quality of her tone is wonderfully appealing, although she still belts out some high notes when required.
Between songs, we hear tales referencing a spectrum of subjects including Johnny Cash, Lech Walesa, Woodstock, torture victims in South America and letters of complaint from the British public during her first UK tour. She even breaks into a dance with a bandmate during one track, leaving only the percussionist to carry the song.
Ending the set with one of her rare self-penned songs, the evocative and warmly received Diamonds & Rust, Baez is quickly brought back by a standing ovation. With an encore that starts with John Lennon’s Imagine and ends with Dylan’s Forever Young, she leaves the audience with a wave and says ‘See you next time!’, as though she’ll be back soon. We can only hope she will.
Words by Imelda Michalczyk, photographs by Marilyn Kingwill.
Joan Baez @ Royal Festival Hall, 20 September 2014.