Joan Baez summed up her iconic career at the Michigan Theater
It’s not easy to say goodbye to an old friend. Maybe that’s why the great Joan Baez is calling her final tour, which came to the Michigan Theater on Tuesday, “Fare Thee Well.”
If indeed that’s the last time Ann Arbor gets to see Baez in person, she left us with an evening full of terrific memories. She set a relaxed, friendly tone from the very start, when she strolled out on stage alone, with no introduction at all, drawing the first of several standing ovations.
Any apprehension about how she might sound at age 77 disappeared as soon as she began to sing. If her voice doesn’t quite have the crystalline edge it once did, it’s still a gorgeous, powerful force, full of warmth and depth. Accompanying herself on guitar, she fleshed out the sound with various combinations of a backup singer, a multi-instrumentalist, and a percussionist (who happens to be her son, Gabe).
Baez has a fine new album out, Whistle Down the Wind, and she played several songs from it Tuesday. The bulk of the show, however, leaned toward old favorites, to the delight of the sellout crowd.
Baez has always had a deft touch with the songs of her old friend Bob Dylan, bringing his lyrics to life like few others, and she sprinkled four Dylan favorites throughout Tuesday’s set. She opened with a heartfelt “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” the source for the name of the tour. (“Goodbye is too good a word, so I’ll just say, ‘fare thee well.’”) “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” was sad and beautiful, while “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” as she noted, has “more poignancy now than ever.”
Other well-received old favorites included a couple of her own compositions, “Honest Lullaby” and, of course, her big hit “Diamonds and Rust.” And she drew from the songbooks of other greats as well, reviving Phil Ochs’ powerful “There But For Fortune,” Woody Guthrie’s heartrending “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” John Prine’s “Hello In There,” and a rollicking version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Her new material included the album’s title track, a Tom Waits cover, and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “The Things That We Are Made Of.” Other new songs brought to the fore the social and political conscience Baez is known for, including Josh Ritter’s female empowerment tale “Silver Blade” and Antony and the Johnsons’ chilling “Another World.” Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” about Barack Obama helping a nation heal after the Charleston church shooting, was an emotional highlight.
Baez turned to some folk/blues classics to wind things up: “Joe Hill” (“an organizing song, because that’s all we got left, guys”), “The House of the Rising Sun,” and “Darling Corey.” She wrapped up the main set with a wonderful, sing-along “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
A first encore included one more Dylan favorite, “Forever Young,” along with a beautiful take on Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” Then she returned once more for a stirring rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Full of sadness, hope, and most of all, heart, it was both a fitting close and a proper goodbye. Or, rather, “fare thee well.”
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
There But For Fortune
Whistle Down the Wind
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)
The Things That We Are Made Of
Diamonds and Rust
Me and Bobby McGee
Hello in There
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
The President Sang Amazing Grace
The House of the Rising Sun
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.