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Memories of Woodstock: Joan Baez at Jazz in Marciac 2018

Luke Seabright By

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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.

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.

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