Joan Baez | Review
Waterfront Hall, Belfast • Monday 19 March 2018
By Chantelle Frampton • Photos: Tremaine Gregg
Joan Baez is one of the most eclectic and well-known folk singers of our time. Her career spans over fifty years and has consistently remained relevant to her fans. On Monday night she brought her much anticipated Fare Thee Well Tour to the Waterfront, Belfast. As it is the final big tour of Joan’s career there was a bittersweetness to the big night yet there was an unspoken excitement amongst everyone.
The night did not begin with a support band but with a dim light showing us the simplistic stage set up and some soothing music that welcomed people to the venue. The fact that she did not need any support reaffirmed her musical status; the crowd did not need to be warmed up as we were all highly awaiting the star herself.
As the crowds were settled and the lights dimmed there was an eruption of cheers and Joan Baez walked out onto the stage. In her simple black attire and a smile on her face she commanded the room from the moment she stepped out. She nonchalantly readied her guitar and began singing ‘There But For Fortune’. The crowd silently looked in awe as the Phil Ochs cover was sang beautifully. As the clapping and cheering at the end of the song was coming to a halt she went straight into ‘God is God’. The way in which she commanded an entire room with just her voice and guitar was astonishing.
The set-list was a refreshing mix of both older and newer tracks as Joan opted to sing a few songs from her new album Whistle Down the Wind. The first one of which was the title song, but before doing so she introduced to the stage two other musicians, Dirk Powell and her son Gabriel Harris. Throughout the set the subtle interaction between the three musicians was very refreshing; it emphasised that they were a fully functional team as opposed to Gabe and Dirk simply supporting Joan.
A major highlight of the evening was the anecdotes that accompanied a lot of the tracks. One that stood out was for the song ‘Silver Blade’ from the new album. Joan explained it was a response to her 1959 track ‘Silver Dagger’. As she discussed the meaning of the lyrics and how the songs intertwine, she managed to get a shout out for International Women’s Week. Yet again she proves how she is an embodiment of female empowerment; naturally, the crowd erupted into cheers after the shout out.
Another such story that was told, slightly more heart wrenching this time, was the background behind the Woody Guthrie song Deportee. A song based on the plane crash at Los Gatos and the lack of recognition for the deportees that were on board and passed away. Not only was this particularly sad but it had a resonating in today’s political climate. Joan is naturally known for her activism and her rendition of this song was the perfect way to demonstrate this. The beautiful harmonising and the simple instrumental delivery meant this moment was emotional for all onlookers.
As the set continued we had the perfect balance between melancholic and singalong. We had the crowd singing along to Bob Dylan’s famous It’s All Over Now Baby Blue and Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’. Then suddenly we would be reminded of the stunning and poetic songwriter Joan Baez is when she sang Diamonds and Rust. What made the performance of this song even more special was at the beginning she mistakenly played a wrong note and retorted with “I’ll start that again”. This one crucial moment humanised her on the stage and was an insight into the reality of live music. It was a nice moment to witness before there were undoubtedly a few teary eyes in the room. The smoke in the background alongside the simplistic purple lights ensured the entire performance of ‘Diamonds and Rust’ was hauntingly beautiful.
As the evening went on Joan’s interaction with the crowd became more frequent. At one point she mentioned her many memories of Belfast and had anecdotes about “checking under cars” and “bomb scares” when she was first in Belfast. Her story ended with her changing venues twice and then singing to the crowd outside; whilst forgetting the words to ‘Blowing in the Wind’.
It was refreshing to hear these stories and it showed that she valued her time in Belfast, it was not simply another city on the tour. Following on from this she began to discuss the recent shooting in Florida, something that is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Her next song was devoted to the students in Florida that have created a political movement, “these kids aren’t in anyone’s pockets” she explained. This was such an empowering moment of the set and was only reinforced when she began to sing the renowned Bob Dylan song ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’. Yet again Joan proved to us that the activism of the sixties is well and truly alive in 2018 and the songs that made a difference back then can do the same now.
The setlist of the evening appeared to be very personal to Joan. This was not only evident through the anecdotes and explanations to the track’s, but you would genuinely believe every word she sang. Her choice of songs was so diverse yet it all came together incredibly well. The fact that she could sing a traditional Irish folk song alongside the famous ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and then ‘Darling Corey’ indorses her variety as an artist.
From start to finish, Joan Baez’s Fare Thee Well Tour in Belfast was a resounding success. We were able to catch a glimpse into the life of music royalty and not simply be onlookers of the show, but actively be a part of the experience. Her voice was flawless, her lyrics were emotional and her message to her fans was as rife as it was in the sixties.