Joan Baez has sung a lot of putative protest music, or at least participated in more than her fair share of rallies, over the last six decades. But here’s something to protest, in 2018: the idea of Baez retiring. She’s currently on what’s being billed as her farewell tour, and when someone like Baez or Paul Simon announces that, unlike, say, Cher or KISS, you’re inclined to take them at their word, even if she didn’t say a thing about it when she played what might have been her final L.A. gig at Royce Hall Sunday. At 77, she’s earned the right to leave at her own chosen speed (to quote Joan quoting Bob). But Baez is still very much in fighting trim, and a sold-out crowd that was mostly of an age to see social parallels between then and now did not want to let her go gently into that good backstage.
It was reasonable to expect that Baez would at least briefly address her impending exit from the spotlight — as of now, her Fare Thee Well Tour is scheduled to end in New York in May — the way that Simon did for several minutes at tour stops like his recent Hollywood Bowl show. But the closest she came to acknowledging on stage that this might’ve been the end of the road for L.A. shows was opening with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Maybe opening with a goodbye song was her sly way of acknowledging the retiring elephant in the room… or maybe she just opened with a Dylan song because there are so many of them in her set that the odds favor it. “I’m throwing in Dylan songs here because they’re the best we’ve got,” she remarked before playing “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” the second of four from his catalog (the remaining two: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Forever Young”). Let’s hope that Dylan doesn’t look at his ex and get any ideas about ending the Never Ending Tour.
Dylan also showed up a fifth time, as an unnamed antagonist, of course, in “Diamonds and Rust” — a 1975 adult-contemporary hit still so popular among her fan base that its opening bars elicited some spontaneous “Oohs!” from the Royce audience and the appearance of a few verboten phones for attempted video captures (quickly squashed by attentive ushers). “I figure if I’m going to write one hit in my lifetime, it might as well be that one,” Baez said upon song’s completion. It’s remarkable how much of an outlier it remains in her catalog, which has tended more toward universal anthems than lost-love ballads… but when you’ve written a breakup recollection as sharp as that one, maybe a mic drop is in order.
Five of the songs came from her March release, “Whistle Down the Wind,” recorded with the most sensitive producer a performer of her generation and sensibility could have found, Joe Henry. The fact that it was her first album in 10 years (following a record she’d made with another next-gen kindred spirit, Steve Earle) renders her retirement still more bittersweet, since it was the sort of thing that makes you want to wish someone is about to get back on a roll. Two of those songs are by Tom Waits, who could be her new Dylan, as another bottomless song source, if she were inclined to continue. An early highlight of her 95-minute set was Waits’ “Last Leaf,” an amusingly defiant song about a determination to go on forever… a funny but maybe not wholly inappropriate song to sing on a farewell tour. “Let’s face it,” she told the Royce crowd, “a lot of us here are the last leaves on the tree.” A song from the same recent album that stood in contrast to that was the world-weary, ready-to-split “Another World,” written by Anohni of Antony and the Johnsons, which Baez described as“a dark, dark song, as beautiful as it is dark. And it expresses exactly how I feel.”
Along those same troubled-time lines, probably the most topical song of the night was Stephen Foster’s 165-year-old “Hard Times Come Again No More,” a sort of secular gospel classic that might have put the audience in mind of current politics or just the current fire season. Baez did address the devastating California fires in a sort of essay or poem she said she’d written that afternoon, in which she expressed concern not just for the human toll but also “birds, bugs, insects, the smallest of things.” She added, “We must be the fire brigade now… Now is the time to love.” She and her band and crew appeared between encores to take a knee and lock arms on stage while Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played over the PA. But there was more charity than defiance in her when, at the end of her final encore, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” she sang the wish that a saving chariot would swoop down “for me, for you… even Donald.”
Said band was a tiny but mighty one. “Please welcome my Big Band-mates,” she quipped after playing the first couple of numbers solo, and the ensemble quickly revealed itself as something not too likely to get in her way: just the trio of Dirk Powell on every instrument imaginable from piano to banjo, son Gabriel Harris on beating-on-a-box solos and other percussion, and, occasionally, backup vocalist and duet partner Grace Stumberg. (A woman identified as Grace Jr. was Baez’s constantly acoustic guitar-switching roadie, maintaining the all-in-the-family feel.) Their support made for the loveliest additions to the severe intimacy, whether they were on their feet or on their knees.
When one of popular music’s most famously piercing sopranos is two months shy of 78, maybe the question people want answered in the first paragraph instead of the seventh is: How’d she sound? The short answer is: damn good, if, obviously, not an exact replica of all that vintage Newport Folk Festival footage. The best way of putting it might be that she used to be so otherworldly as to sound like an alien, and now she sounds like an extremely talented and assured mortal human being, which is actually not a bad transition to have made at all. The “Whistle Down the Wind” album emphasized the middle registers that Baez is most comfortable in now. But in concert, although Stumberg’s handful of duet parts were clearly there to help a little with the heavy lifting, Baez does still go into a fair amount of those high parts of yore, and with confidence. Her controlled melisma on the final syllables of “House of the Rising Sun” were a marvel, and she did not resist reprising the parts of Dylan’s “Hard Rain” that unofficially constitute a yodel. And she took on “Darling Corey” with stillhouse-demolishing efficiency.
Was this CAP UCLA presentation really her L.A. swan song, or might she be back for an encore in a venue that doesn’t so easily sell out and leave Woodstock generation types learning how to use StubHub for the first time? Her lack of sentimentality in neglecting to say anything about leaving the stage at all seemed to suggest that maybe this wasn’t really it… or maybe it just suggested, you know, a lack of sentimentality. But if she does add onto the tour with some bigger blowouts, it’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t want to come to that. Even Donald.