Joan Baez in Lowell (2013)

Reading about Joan Baez on her “Fare Thee Well Tour,” I was reminded of one of her performances in the Summer Music Series at the national park in Lowell, Mass. On the evening of June 28, 2013, a rain storm pushed the concert indoors, which was unfortunate because Boarding House Park is such an inspiring venue for music. This show marked the third time I had seen her in the city, starting with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. By then she was already a legend, so what label applies now? Legendary legend? She put something permanent into the culture with her voice and humanitarianism. I count myself lucky to have heard her perform. This essay first appeared on the popular RichardHowe.com blog in Lowell with which I have been associated since 2008.

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Joan Baez in Lowell

IN THE END it was like church. A generational church. A church of humanity. Of joy. Of suffering. Of soulful community. She brought us together one more time, and there was a poignancy to it because a lot of us are getting “up there” and have seen plenty of water flow under our bridges. The rain amplified the mood. A big part of the familiar sound of that water we’ve heard rushing toward us and running under the bridges came back to us last night in the auditorium at Lowell High School. She was in the city for the Lowell Summer Music Series.

In a poem, Walt Whitman wrote that he contained multitudes. On her more than 50-year journey of music and compassion, Joan Baez has gathered up a multitude of experiences and people that layer her performances as an artist. In a city with History as one of its top industries, Joan Baez brought her heritage to the stage. She reached back to beginnings in coffeehouses of Cambridge and Boston to play folk standards as elegantly as she did when she was an unknown long-haired girl with a guitar. She gave us selections of Americana, spirituals, and pop along with choices from her own catalogue of compositions—both hits and deep cuts.

Always of her time, whether she was singing for Civil Rights at the Lincoln Memorial or pushing for human rights in Latin America, she name-checked the Supreme Court and this week’s decisions on the Voting Rights Act and gay marriage—one minus, one plus—and sang her commentary. She has a forever bond with Bob Dylan that gets richer and deeper as they age. Her renderings of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “The Lonesome Death of Poor Hattie Carroll” were exquisite, heartbreaking, really, for the profound emotional freight the music and lyrics carry. We got it straight from the source last night. She was there. She’s the carrier of that truth. She mentioned playing “Hattie Carroll” with “Bob” when the song was new in the very Maryland county in which the murderous act had occurred. “We had to get out of there fast after the show,” she said. On “Baby Blue,” she mimicked Dylan’s outlaw croon for a few key lines, drawing laughs from the crowd. The night began and ended with standing ovations.

She is such a generous artist. Her repertoire includes brilliant interpretations of work by the family of composers, those long-gone and others more recent. The encore featured a gorgeous version of “The Boxer” by Paul Simon. I wonder if somebody told her about Lowell being a fighter’s town? Throughout the evening her guitar-playing was a joy to absorb. Other than Carole King on piano, how many other women of a certain age are delivering a 90-minute show of singing and instrumentation? And who from her era is standing up with a guitar all night? Joni Mitchell sang a few songs on stage at a recent event in Canada, I think it was. She’s younger, and not on the road these days. Joan Baez remains in play with her signature artistry, intelligence, morality, and subtle humor.

So, there was Joan Baez, who first played in Lowell in early November 1975 as a member of the Rolling Thunder Revue, barnstorming the northeast on the Dylan bus. I remember their crystalline singing of “Blowing in the Wind” in the cozy Costello Gym at what is now UMass Lowell. Late in the show last night, Joan Baez thrilled the audience with a beautiful and sly version of “Diamonds and Rust,” her monument to their legendary relationship. My guess is that many of the people in the auditorium last night had been on the lawn at Boarding House Park a couple of years ago when she played the national park pavilion. I remember wonderful music under the stars.

She closed the show with a group sing of John Lennon’s wishful anthem “Imagine.” There were more than a thousand of us in unison on the modern hymn. She led the gray-tinged choir, singing for what might have been or what still could be if the spirit moves enough people at the same time. The auditorium became a cultural church of shared values. The thoughts point in a good direction, a path for aspiration, a clearing in the woods to which we can head. And there was Joan Baez leading the choir. We knew all the words.

June 29, 2013