This is how you can tell the genuine activist artists from the wannabes. At the Joan Baez Charleston Music Hall show, the merch table did not bear the usual array of T-shirts, posters, and CDs displayed for sale. Instead, the “merch” on offer consisted of buttons and literature from a sampling of causes that the artist supports. Both inside the Music Hall and out in front, Amnesty International staffers quietly circulated with clipboards collecting signatures for their petitions.
Ever mindful of issues she feels need attention, Baez sprinkled her 90-minute set with a few political asides.
At one point a prayer session was proposed in order to entreat for the enlightenment of candidate Trump, whom she characterized simply as “bats.” Before singing “Do Right Woman” Baez mentioned that she’d learned the song while serving a jail term for civil disobedience in a Vietnam-era demonstration abetting draft resisters. The intro to Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees” characterized her position on immigration as “the opposite of building a wall. We should share as much of ourselves and this country as we can.”
All these remarks on her current socio-political interests were delivered lightly and in the context of her admission that she has “been a pessimist all my life. And I've done everything I've done despite that pessimism.” If anyone needed a reminder, the singer's comments also underscored a lifelong dedication to underdog causes. At times, this outspokenness has come at the cost of her musical career, but it caused no obvious dissent with her Charleston audience. On the contrary, old favorites like Dylan's "The Times They are a-Changin'" simply highlighted her status as both a legendary performer and dedicated political activist.
Baez's setlist held firm to those long-standing links, even as new material joined the mix. "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" made it onto the list, but so did Antony & the Johnsons' "Another World." Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" made an appearance, but the Richard Thompson-penned "She Never Could Resist a Winding Road" and "From Galway to Graceland" snugged in right beside it.
Baez's road band bears more than a passing resemblance to the artist herself in terms of talent, versatility, and in one case, genetics. Her son, Gabriel Harris joined on percussion, “co-singer” Grace Stumberg came along on vocals, and Dirk Powell pulled multiple duty with fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, accordion, and piano.
Even those who disagree with her politics would be hard-pressed to characterize Baez as being strident. That's never really been her style. At the Music Hall, she delivered her music and message in the focused, low-key manner one has come to expect of her. But that's not to say that everything is set in stone. At least one indication that the times are, indeed, "a-changin'" appeared in her performance of the evergreen "Diamonds and Rust."
Where the original lyric ran, "Yes I loved you dearly/And if you're offering me diamonds and rust/I've already paid," in Wednesday night's amendment Baez shoved mention of that payment aside and instead sang, "I'll take the diamonds."
Things evolve. Times change. Maybe just too slowly for Baez's liking. Perhaps the times simply need to keep up with her.