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 announcerperhaps it seemed unnecessary in her caseto thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
She performed her first songs alone, and the set began with "Don't Think Twice It's Alright," the first of several of her covers of Bob Dylan
songs. The opening lyrics of "Farewell Angelina" drew an ecstatic response from the crowd; not surprising since, while it was indeed penned by Dylan, it is Baez's interpretation that most of us remember. Before "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall," a personal favorite of hers, she took the opportunity to express her gratitude at having known the great singer-songwriter. By the time she sang her hauntingly beautiful rendition of "It's All Over Now Baby Blue," which featured the exquisite accompanying vocals of Grace Stumberg, she had been joined on stage by her full band. While introducing "Forever Young," Baez humbly acknowledged that her voice isn't quite what it used to be, before humorously adding that today, to compensate, she gives Stumberg "the high note."
This was indeed one of the questions on many people's minds before the concert. What can we expect from Baez's voice? Some people in the audience might have known only her early work, and even those who knew her discography well wouldn't have heard a recent recording of hers, unless they had had the chance to listen to her very latest album, which came out shortly before the start of the tour, her first in a decade. But whatever concerns some might have had were washed away from the instant she began to sing. A deeper, ever so slightly more quavering voice, there's no doubt, her range inevitably truncated by the years, but a force in its own right. Her performance was graceful and composed, her control of the guitar defying the odds for someone with septuagenarian joints, and the slight husk in her tone imparting an added sense of confident wisdom to her (still) masterful vocal command. One was often left doubting whether it was really true that she couldn't hit those high notes.
In addition to Stumberg on vocals, Baez had by her side two other musicians, including multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell
. "God gave this one an overdose of talent" Baez is quoted to have said about him, and it was mesmerizing to see him pick up alternately the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and the guitar, jump behind the keyboards, and even add some of his own layers to the vocal textures. Taking charge of percussion was her only son, Gabriel Harris, a frequent tour companion of hers. Having seen a visibly pregnant Baez in the Woodstock footage two days prior, it was particularly moving to witness mother and child perform on stage together almost fifty years later. "David is doing just fine, we're doing fine" she says reassuringly to the microphone, pointing to her curvaceous belly, in front of a crowd of over 200 000 people. David Harris, Gabriel's father, was in prison at the time for having refused induction into the armed forces.
The couple had in fact met in prison a few years beforehand, after Baez was arrested, alongside her mother and dozens of other women, for blocking the doors of an induction center in Oakland, California to prevent young inductees from entering. Dedication to various forms of social activism has always been central to her music and public persona (she famously performed "We Shall Overcome" at the 1963 March on Washington). She made no exception on this night. Her cover of Woody Guthrie's song "Deportee" had a devastating poignancy in light of the current US government's immigration policies ("you won't have a name when you ride the big airplane, and all they will call you will be deportee"). She spoke of healing in the face of hate in "The President Sang Amazing Grace," written in memory of the 2015 Charleston shooting. The song was the first of three she would perform from off her latest album, Whistle Down The Wind
, released in March 2018 ("Silver Blade" being another, which has everything of a future classic).
The emotion was palpable throughout the night, not least on stage. In interpreting the Anthony and the Johnsons song "Another World" (also on the album), Joan Baez candidly revealed to the audience her apprehensions as her life nears its close ("I need another world, this one's nearly gone"). Such uniquely personal covers of other composers' works are of course what she is most famous for. At Woodstock, before singing "Sweet Sir Galahad," she says "I'm just smart enough to know that my writing is very mediocre." Most fans however would challenge this claim. One of her own compositions, "Diamond and Rust," remains one of her most beloved songs. Unsurprisingly, it drew a rapturous response from the Marciac crowd which, at many points throughout the night, was invited to sing along. When the English language was required, this would often be tentative (one exception being the refrain from "The Boxer"). However, when she started to sing, in impeccable French, the George Brassens classic "La Chanson Pour L'Auvergnat," the whole tent seemed to join the chorus in unison.
The insatiable crowd succeeded in bringing Baez back to the stage three times until eventually the lights were switched back on and people started to disperse. As they slowly made their way to the village square to cap off the evening with some jazz, the tent freed itself up for an army of blue-collared volunteers to execute their final mission for the night: clear out all 6000 chairs before the last concert. Every year the festival programs a standing event on the last night, and for the 2018 edition they were expecting an 11000-strong crowd, which is unheard of in Marciac. Who was able to attract such numbers to a small village in southwest France? Carlos Santana
. To many jazz fans, Marciac may be the European Newport, but on those last two nights, it had a clear flavor of Woodstock.