Having Joan Baez open the series of high-profile weekend concerts might seem an odd choice at first, but it turns out to have been a brilliant programming decision. Her bicultural background (her physicist father Albert Baez was from Puebla, Mexico), local residence and iconic stature as an international political activist and singer certainly provide her with the credentials to fit the festival opener role. However, the great service she performed for the festival as a whole in her concert was to strategically place the traditions of Spanish-language songs (from Mexico, Spain, Chile and other Latin American countries) firmly within the context of her explorations of the “Great American Songbook,” thus affirming her own dual cultural background while illustrating and informing the intellectual and philosophical cultural crossroads the festival has become.
Last night’s concert was the first in a series that will take Baez and her great band of four musicians to Western Europe in the coming several weeks. Baez explained that she added several songs from her 1974 Spanish-language album, “Gracias a la Vida,” to her planned tour set list especially for the San Jose event but that the mix worked so well she has now decided to continue doing them on the tour.
Now 68, the folk legend from the 60s has been on the road for 50 years and has been, along with 90-year-old Pete Seeger, probably the biggest and longest-lived political musical force in American history (a fact to be recognized on October 14 with the premiere of the new PBS American Masters series program on Baez). Age has not diminished the voice, presence, beauty and political idealism of this great citizen and musician, as was plain to see in the concert at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. The songs she chose—including traditional spirituals, gospel, and labor and civil rights anthems—covered her entire career and many of the landmark issues and leaders she has been associated with: from Martin Luther King and the campaign for civil rights, the anti-Vietnam War movement, Cesar Chavez and the plight of farmworkers and immigrants, unions and labor rights, and Allende and Chile, right up to the present-day anti-Iraq War movement and advocacy for the rights of the people in Iran against the current regime.
From “Gracias a la Vida,” she chose several songs, including the title track and a bilingual version of the old labor-rights classic, We Shall Not Be Moved” (“No Nos Moverán”), which she included in her concert-center solo set. One of the high points of a concert full of them, Baez started off her solo portion with an a cappella version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” dedicated to her 96-year-old mother who was in the audience. She finished the set of solo songs pairing moving versions of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” and her song about her early 1960s relationship with Dylan, “Diamonds and Rust.” Another hit with me was the band’s beautiful version of the song Baez famously sang at the Woodstock Festival and seared into the mind of a generation, “The Ballad of Joe Hill,” about the Swedish-American labor activist executed in Salt Lake City in 1915 on a trumped-up murder conviction.
Brought back for an encore, Baez and her band gave a crowd-pleasing rendition of her 1971 hit version of Robbie Robertson’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and finished up with an arresting, five-part a cappella arrangement of the spiritual “Angel Band.”