The last time I saw a concert at the Santa Monica Pier was August 2001, when Ozomatli took the stage, and the wooden planks beneath our feet shuddered, as thousands of fans hopped up and down to “Como Ves.” Last week, an army of peaceniks poured onto the pier for Joan Baez and her band (and a solo opening set by singer Tift Merritt), and hundreds more adored her from the shore below, swaying in unison with the folk icon’s famously sonorous voice and the tossing tide.
Like Seeger and Guthrie, Baez has a following of fervent fans who pay tribute to her as a timeless songwriter and activist whose music still reverberates vibrantly today. “I swore I wouldn’t sing this for nostalgia’s sake, but in this case it makes sense,” Baez said before she surrendered to the crowd’s unrelenting requests for “We Shall Overcome.” English and Farsi speakers traded verses while Baez’s unmistakable vibrato carried the crowd; throngs of Baby Boomers — some of whom attended Woodstock — bearded men in Birkenstocks and women with striking gray hair, Baby Boomer offspring with braids and Nalgene bottles, and Iranian-Americans, adorned in green, some carrying flags, holding “Neda’s Voice” posters in the air.
If anything, it was a hopeful cross section of Obama’s America, a reunion of survivors who have lived through war and its remissions and find themselves returning to the fundamental roots of a peace movement, to physical activism and the strength of a pacifist’s song. A few fans reached out to hold hands with their neighbor as they sang.
“The people of Iran have shown us the face of Iran. Those who sat down in silence in the face of all odds have given us a lesson,” Baez said. “They will rise up again, I’m absolutely certain.”
At the pier’s periphery, fans huddled together without a view, behind a fence barricade, ears turned toward the stage to catch traces of songs as they trailed off on the wind. A middle-aged man took out his pocket knife and sawed off the plastic ties of a vinyl banner draped over the fence, so that people could get a glimpse of “Joanie,” with her stylishly short gray hair, in a maroon dress and white scarf draped around her neck. “We can’t hear you, Joanie!” a man yelled. Others chimed in. “Louder!” “We love you!”
The poor acoustics were irreparable, Baez explained, but she promised to sing out, and she did. A steady stream of bubbles floated over the crowd, reflecting the neon blue lights of the Ferris wheel. Baez’s performance was punctuated by historical anecdotes, as she recalled the days she lived over the carousel in the Hippodrome on Santa Monica Pier and mocked Dylan’s raspy voice in her rendition of “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.” Dylan’s poignant song, “Forever Young,” which Baez sang for her parents’ second marriage to each other after being divorced for 30 years, brought tears to many eyes. “My father told my mother he was going to die soon and that he wanted to die a married man,” said Baez. “He said the only woman he wanted to be married to was her. I asked my mom what she was going to do, and she just said, ‘Oh, what the hell,’ ” Baez laughed and strummed the first chord.
Baez covered other classics as well, including “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” first recorded by The Band in 1969, and a version of “Christmas in Washington,” by Steve Earle, who produced her latest album Day After Tomorrow. “Things are getting better, but we need Woody right now,” she said. After a nostalgia-tinged encore, the pier crowd packed up beach chairs or hopped on bikes and drifted toward Ocean Avenue in the soft moonlight, with a consonant sense of hope and the memory of a song.