It seemed a while since I had seen Joan Baez, although this was now my third time, and, sadly, likely to be my last; billed her Farewell tour, Sage 1 was packed to the rafters with people awaiting their last live encounter with this lady, who can only be described as an icon.
Arriving on stage with a little dance, it was hard to believe she is now seventy seven years old, as she launched into Show Me A Prison. From the outset, it was clear that that voice, although older, is still very much present. Continuing, just her and her guitar, she transitioned into a beautiful performance of God is God; the two songs bookended somehow seeming very relevant to our current world. It seemed a touching echo of what Gretchen Peters said in Sage 2 about how loving each other is the only thing that will get us through.
Pausing to thank us for coming, she played a song known by most, Farewell Angelina, before introducing us, with a giggle, to her "big band"; her son, Gabe Harris, who made sounds on an acoustic drum set that I've never heard before and Dierk Powell, known to regulars of Transatlantic Sessions, on banjo, guitar and other instruments. Together, they were the perfect accompaniment to the haunting vocals emanating from the stage.
A few songs from her new release, Whistle Down The Wind, were delivered, including the title track, Silver Blade and Another World (as beautiful as it is dark and as dark as it is beautiful, she divulged), telling us the stories behind them and the people who wrote them. Most moving of the new songs was The President Sang Amazing Grace, about Obama's visit to the church in Charleston, South Carolina, where the shooting took place; she went on to tell us that on her way home she has been invited to perform the song there for the anniversary. What an honour.
Talking about refugees, she told us another incredible story; having sung Woody Guthrie's Deportees On a Plane, for years, she had become aware of someone who had researched and finally identified those with no names, then having the opportunity to sing the song with their relatives. What amazing closure that must have given them; to sing the song written about them, by and with people who were so moved by their story. Testament, too, I feel, to what a remarkable person she is.
Baby Blue offered the audience our first chance to join in, but not our last. The House of The Rising Sun gained huge applause; in my head I was back there in New Orleans.
In a wonderful segue to The Times They Are A Changing, Joan talked about her admiration for those teens standing up to be counted in the fight against gun, stating such a movement has not been seen since the sixties and how the baton has been passed. Being incredibly drawn to the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and acutely aware that I was sharing a room with someone who marched for the cause with Martin Luther King, it gave me chills to know what she was referring to and how loaded her praise really was. Watching those scenes recently felt like watching scenes from the sixties. Apparently I wasn't alone as the audience spontaneously joined in singing with her; almost as if, in our unity, we could somehow help them to effect change. Here's hoping. I think it is clear that they have Joan Baez's support.
Inviting Grace Stumberg out on stage (what an incredible voice!) we were treated to the most beautiful version of Diamonds and Rust I have ever heard. Her sense of humour also shone through with the amendment, 'fifty years ago…'. Not for the first time hearing this song live, I cried; there is just something about it, knowing it comes from truth, knowing it may be the last time I ever hear it live - either way, it was incredibly emotional. There wasn't a sound in the room, other than the song.
An equally moving moment came when she asked us all to sing John Lennon's Imagine with her; leaving us in no doubt she is as skilled at interpreting others' songs as writing her own. Saying the lines so we could sing them back with her, she beamed as the whole of Sage 1 became one in song. I will never forget the feeling in the room for those 4 minutes; it truly felt like being in church, offering a prayer for the world.
All too soon, our beautiful night together was over and Joan ended with Gracias a la Vida, which somehow seemed all too appropriate. She called it a thank you for so many things, big and small, telling us her feet are tired from so many marches; what a perfect reference for her to wish us farewell. By that point, I had tears rolling down my face, as I realized, singing the La la las back to her, that in my head and heart that song was a perfect thank you for her, her music, her part in the marches, the night we had just shared and indeed for the two which preceded it. I still remember a time when I would never have imagined seeing Joan Baez in such an incredible place, so close to home.
Calling Grace back on stage and inviting us to sing with her, one last time, the room was filled with eight hundred plus singing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. This was the song which made me want to visit Robert E Lee's house in Arlington Cemetery, so it felt like a gift to finally hear it live, especially tonight. Grace took a verse and blew everyone away with her voice; I'll be looking her up.
Blowing us kisses and signaling sleep, Joan left the stage, to the entire room standing in ovation; as she did, she left something untangible but very special behind her. There is still a part of me hopes she will return, but if that was farewell, it was full of joy and love; both ways. If I may alter a song lyric; "Farewell Joan, there's nothing to prove, everything's still the same, just a stage standing empty by the edge of the river." Thankyou. You have left us diamonds, no rust, and they will sparkle in our memories long after you have left Sage Gateshead.
I would like to add, that I did something I rarely ever do; I went to the stage door and did manage to catch her as she left. I was able to thank her for coming more than once, tell her it blows my mind that she marched with MLK and wish her well. Giving us about a minute each, she was very gracious. What an incredible way to end an incredible show!
Words: Helen Mitchell
Photos: Neil King
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