Joan Baez Begins Weekend Mexican Heritage Festival Events

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.”

4 Comments

  1. Mexican Heritage Festival Weekend Brought Many Surprises

    What a strange but musically wonderful journey the 2009 San Jose Mariachi and Mexican Heritage Festival weekend was. Beginning on Friday with Joan Baez’s paeans to “Heroes of our Heritage” and ending on Sunday night with Los Lobos and Santana playing a Jimi Hendrix composition to finish the tribute concert to the legacy of Cesar Chavez, the cross-fertilization of ethnic Mexican, American and world musics provided an interesting counterpoint to the celebration of various aspects of Mexican and Mexican-American music, culture and history. This new conceptual structuring of the festival is now its strength in that it provides surprises and another higher level of intellectual interest that solidifies its uniqueness and, furthermore, will drive it forward in the future.

    Saturday night’s concert, a “Tribute to the Golden Era of Mexican Film,” presented yet another fascinating crossroads in Mexican culture. The Mexican musical films of the 1940s and 50s did much to further popularize mariachi music with the masses in Mexico, and, in turn, many of the songs from those films are still massively popular today. But, before that got started, hundreds of young music and dance students who took part in the workshops with professionals throughout the week joined their teachers onstage to perform a few numbers. Kids of all ages and many ethnic backgrounds from near and far played and danced their hearts out, and their absolute light-beam joy in their performance was a sight to behold. It is easy to see that the future of mariachi is safe for another few generations.

    Next that evening came a colorful and exciting 40th anniversary performance by San Jose’s Los Lupeños dance company, accompanied by Mariachi Cobre. After an interval, Mariachi Cobre again took the stage to continue the film tribute, joined by the incomparable Aida Cuevas, the Queen of Mariachi, who has become one of my favorite singers in the world. Alternating clips of the old films with live performances of the songs staged almost like a Broadway musical with dance and action, the tribute was obviously a hit with the audience who sang along with almost every tune.

    The Sunday Feria del Mariachi in Cesar Chavez Plaza was well attended as usual, even though it was a very hot day. It was free this year thanks to the financial support of Target. The program revolving around three stages presenting Mexican regional and traditional music and dance was interesting and crowd pleasing. The afternoon ended with a virtuosic performance by Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, who were joined by festival artistic director Linda Ronstadt for a few songs. Ronstadt’s voice is as good as ever, and her famous lungs are still working fine.

    Also, I just have to mention the incredible tamales from Lucy’s stand at the feria that are so good and completely addictive. Fortunately, San Joseans can visit Lucy’s Tamale Factory on Story Road and get a tamale fix whenever necessary.

    Longtime Tex-Mex favorite Joe y la Familia opened the final Sunday night concert tribute to Cesar Chavez in the HP Pavilion that was attended by many members of the Chavez family and Dolores Huerta, who, along with Chavez, was a co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America. Then East L.A.’s Los Lobos took the stage performing a specially designed concert for the festival. To be fair I have to reveal that Los Lobos is one of my favorite bands and has been ever since I first heard them on the radio in the late 1970s. The musicianship of all the members never ceases to amaze me. They write great songs, and can play anything, and do, from mariachi to Chicago blues to 1960s psychedelic rock.

    Los Lobos began their set with acoustic instruments performing what I would call guitar-based mariachi-style traditional songs in Spanish (love that guitarron playing by bassist Conrad Lozano). After several of these tunes, they switched instruments and languages and played some of their own electric band songs and some classic rock and roll. Virtuoso guitarist Carlos Santana joined the band for the second half of the performance and raised an already-high energy level tenfold. Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo aptly introduced Santana as “the man who took our music to the world.” The group performed some Santana hits and more classic Latino rock, including Richie Valens’ “Come On, Let’s Go” and “La Bamba.” Called back for an encore, the musicians ended with versions of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” and a surprise performance of one of Jimi Hendrix’s lesser-known but best works, “Are You Experienced?” with Hendrix-tinged solos from Santana and the three equally great Los Lobos guitarists, Hidalgo, Louie Perez and Cesar Rosas.

    This was yet another festival to remember and another feather in San Jose’s civic cap. I applaud the fact that so much thought goes into each year’s presentations to make them part of an ongoing, long-term annual series that aims to illuminate different aspects of Mexican culture each year, and I appreciate the ability of Ronstadt and festival CEO Marcela Davison Aviles to bring some of the world’s best musicians to downtown San Jose under the festival banner.

  2. Q: Why is this Mexi-fest “all things Mariachi” being force fed to all of us here at SJI? Isn’t it enough that they receive $ from the CSJ?? I, for one, am tired of this “musical journey”…

    • Oye Como Va!

      There was the Big Band era, Jazz, Blues, Country, Disco, Rock n Roll, Alternative Rock, for the love of God, lets us celebrate the music of our Ancentors. Don’t be so greedy. Hasn’t this country done enough to Mother Earth and those who share this planet.
      Hang in there, the Moon may be the next jouney for those like you who think it’s all about you. Maybe there’s Gold in them there Craters.
      Arato Vato

    • To “Reality”, so you were forced against your will to listen or take part in this wonderful Mexican Festival, and there was no-where else you could have gone or something else you could have listened to – that’s so sad – this is said of course with sarcasm – to Joan Baez, Mercedes Sosa, Linda Ronstadt and all the wonderful Mexican/Spanish artists as well as all the wonderful Spanish speaking people and to those that love Mexican/Spanish music I say Gracias a La Vida.

      Saskia (Melbourne Victoria Australia)