Memories of Woodstock: Joan Baez at Jazz in Marciac 2018

Memories of Woodstock: Joan Baez at Jazz in Marciac 2018
Luke Seabright By

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If you're a jazz fan, you'll almost certainly have heard of Marciac. But if it's the first time you're going there, and you don't know much about the place, you may well experience some confusion. If you've flown in, you're most likely driving over from Toulouse, the nearest airport. You've prepared your GPS and entered in your destination (perhaps you know little more about it than the name and that of the jazz legend you bought tickets many months in advance to go see there). But as you drive along, and the roads get narrower and windier, as you find yourself crossing ever smaller villages with odd-sounding names, you may start to question whether you have the right directions. Is this really the road to one of Europe's largest, longest and most prestigious jazz festivals? Is it this dubious French GPS perhaps whose settings are taking you through the remotest parts of southwest France to avoid tolls?

Whatever your misgivings, you are indeed on the right track. Marciac is a tiny village in the Gers department, a forty-minute drive from the town of Auch, and there's no avoiding the narrow winding roads to get there. Barely 1200 people live there, yet over about three weeks in August, an average of nearly ten times that number come to visit every single day. As you enter the last kilometer of your drive, your doubts are definitively quelled. There's far more traffic here than you'd expect this far into the countryside, and the road is lined with posters from the festival's main media partner, France Musique. Once you're parked and you've made it to the main square, you can listen to the free jazz on the central stage while enjoying a glass of Armagnac, have a meal in one of the restaurants under the arcades, or explore the numerous artisanal stands. Another sure sign you've made it to Marciac: along the way you'll almost certainly cross several people with blue collars around their necks, in various states of sleep deprivation depending on the day you show up. They are just some of the many volunteers that join the team every year (nearly one thousand over the course of the entire event).

The geometry of Marciac is pretty straightforward: a central square with two perpendicular streets starting at every corner, and a circular ring-road. Yet despite this apparent simplicity, the village contains some hidden locations, small squares and courtyards, that could escape the eye on a first visit. It isn't uncommon to hear people who have been coming to the festival for years asking themselves "how come I've never been here before?." After that of the main church, Marciac's skyline boasts a second spire which stands on top of a porch separating two little squares. Many people don't know that in the larger of the two can be found a small cinema. It was inaugurated in the presence of the great Serbian filmmaker and musician Emir Kusturica (the cinema bears his name). It is open year-round, and during the festival offers a daily program of film screenings and conferences, showing some new releases but mostly features or documentaries about music.

Those, like the volunteers, who choose to make Marciac their home for a week a two, are confronted on a daily basis with the challenging question of how to make use of their leisure time before the evening concerts. Where will the next resting spot be? Will it be suited for a nap, and if so how long should the nap last? With which beverage and which flavor ice cream should I enjoy my afternoon jazz on the square? The cinema offers an interesting alternative for such architects of idle pastimes. Of particular interest in this year's program was the 1970 documentary Woodstock, directed by Michael Wadleigh, with editing work done by Martin Scorsese. Over three hours of footage from the 1969 festival, including extracts from some of the artists' sets, touching scenes of elated hippies engaging in all sorts of weird activities despite the mud and the mayhem, and amusing insights into the logistical chaos behind the organization.

In the early hours of the morning of Woodstock's second day, a young folk singer takes to the stage, alone with only her guitar. Her voice, to so many, is instantly recognizable, emblematic of the 1960s folk revival and deeply associated with the turbulent years of the civil rights movement (except, funnily enough, to the man sitting next to me who, despite having bought a ticket to see her in two days' time, asked me after the viewing who that wonderful singer with the crystalline voice was). Joan Baez was twenty-eight years old when she performed at the legendary event. From the comfort of our movie theater armchairs, we could experience her half-a-century-old performance of two iconic songs, "Joe Hill" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot." We would hear her reinterpret them on Marciac's main stage two days later.

On the afternoon before her concert, the sky was clear blue and the sun ablaze, the temperatures not quite reaching the scorching 40°C of the festival's first days, but still at the sweltering intensity you'd expect in August in the south of France. You wouldn't have guessed a storm was on its way had the word not started spreading around the village. Even under the threat of lightning and torrential rain (Marciac usually suffers at least one such storm every summer), people go about their daily business, including Joan Baez who could be seen that afternoon strolling and window-shopping through the main square with one of her crew. But by seven pm, the crest of a portentous cloud had started to creep into view in the sky above the village. As the winds started to rise and the first showers broke, rumors of a potential delay and possibly a cancellation were spreading. Fortunately, by nine pm when the concert was meant to begin, it appeared like the worst had been avoided. The evening sky offered a mesmerizing Turneresque display of light and shade, and the calm after the storm created a contemplative mood befitting such a highly anticipated event.

The main tent, which is erected on the rugby pitch and holds a little over 6000 seats, was at full capacity, the tickets having sold out in a matter of days after the announcement of Baez's first ever concert in Marciac. It should also be her last, if indeed, as announced, her "Fare thee well" tour marks her final goodbye to the stage. Reflecting the significance of the event, she was the only scheduled act that night, when usually there are two or three. She gave a full two-hour performance; a more than satisfactory length for any concert, but a remarkable feat when you consider that Baez is approaching eighty years old. As soon as the lights went down the excitement spread, and very soon afterwards she entered the stage, alone, without the usual introduction from the strongly-accented announcer—perhaps it seemed unnecessary in her case—to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
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