On Saturday, Nov. 10, Royce Hall at UCLA was sold out for Joan Baez’s Fare Thee Well … Tour 2018. At the age of 77, the folk music icon and political activist decided to end formal touring after almost 60 years on the road with one last go around the United States, U.K. and Europe. Before the concert, her fans milled about Royce Hall’s lobby and outdoor patio. While all ages were represented, the majority were old enough to have seen her perform in the 1960s.
I first saw Baez on Sunday, Aug. 6, 1967 at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens, New York, when I was 12. A fledgling guitarist, I revered Baez and Bob Dylan, the queen and king of folk (Dylan had already transitioned to rock but it was all the same to me). My father got two tickets and accompanied me. While he appreciated Baez, his tastes lay with the generational-appropriate Ella Fitzgerald. I, on the other hand, was smitten with Joanie. Her long black hair, soaring soprano and radical political activism were key factors in developing one of my first long-distance crushes.
And she had an irreverent wit. That night she dedicated a song to President Lyndon Johnson, the commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces, at the time fighting patriotic insurgents in Vietnam, and launched into an a cappella version of The Supremes' “Stop! In the Name of Love.” The crowd (and young me) went wild with whoops and laughter. My loyal Democrat father leaned over to me and said, “Someone should sing that to the [insurgent] Viet Cong.” This was an example of what was called the generation gap in the 1960s, and Joan Baez was our side’s spokeswoman. (Within a year my father opposed the war as well. To paraphrase Pete Townshend, the kids are alright.)
Fifty-one years later, I’m standing on Royce Hall’s patio talking to a married couple I just met: Sharon and Bill Weisman, 72 and 64, respectively. Bill has his long gray hair pulled into a ponytail and Sharon gives off a similar old-hippie vibe. Both are longtime Baez fans — Sharon first saw her in the mid-1960s, Bill in the mid-’70s — and are still politically active, currently involved in weekly peace vigils. “I bought the story you have to participate,” says Sharon. “It’s our job — I’m an American.” Bill is her second husband; she married her first husband and bore their son “as a political act” — to keep him out of the Vietnam-era draft. (Their son is now 52 and a Trump supporter.) She recalls running into her ex-husband at a Baez concert at the Greek Theatre in the 1970s. He was with his second wife. “I keep marrying women who like Joan,” he quipped. Sharon knew that tonight’s concert would conjure emotions: “I hope I brought enough tissues.”
In keeping with Baez’s thorough lack of pretension, the concert began when she walked onstage with no introduction, initially alone — trim, black-clad and still a beauty. In keeping with the “Fare Thee Well” theme, she launched into a Latin-tinged “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” — one of several Dylan songs she’d sing tonight. “They’re the best we’ve got,” she noted. She followed it with Tom Waits’ “Last Leaf.” (“The autumn took the rest/But it won’t take me/I’m the last leaf on the tree.”) These two songs were among a handful that touched on experience, survival and age. Like most older singers, she’s lost some of her legendary vocal range, but she’s made up for it with a raspy grit that speaks to the miles accumulated on her road.
“Each night we dedicate a song for refugees and immigrants,” she said by way of introducing Woody Guthrie’s timeless and tragic ode “Deportee.” She followed that with Stephen Foster’s 19th-century (but equally eternal) plea “Hard Times Come Again No More.” “Diamonds and Rust,” her autobiographical recounting of her romance with Dylan, was exquisite, as was Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” — songs that resonate in particular with her boomer base. Background singer Grace Stumberg took the latter’s second verse, powerfully channeling Janis Joplin’s phrasing and moving the audience to awed cheers. Dirk Powell on guitar, mandolin, bass, banjo, fiddle and piano and Baez’s son, Gabriel Harris, on percussion were equally impressive. Powell’s virtuosity is remarkable, while Harris’ cajón solo on “Darling Corey” gave the show a rhythmic shot.
Baez continued to cover a wide musical range, performing songs composed or popularized by Pete Seeger, John Prine and Antony & the Johnsons. Her rendition of “Joe Hill” — the Industrial Workers of the World anthem she sang at Woodstock ’69 — reaffirmed her union solidarity, while Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace” not only dealt with the Charleston massacre and gun violence but was a reminder of who’s currently in the White House without naming names.
Baez appropriately ended the concert proper with Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a La Vida”/“Thanks to Life.” With arms wrapped around one another, Joan, band and road crew bowed to the audience’s sustained standing ovation. And then, in a brilliant bit of choreographed theatricality, an excerpt from Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” was played over the sound system while all onstage simultaneously dropped and took a knee — an homage to Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter. The audience went wild and one 63-year-old musician, writer and lifelong flaming radical found himself leaping up, screaming approval with fist clenched in the air, despite his ravaged back and prosthetic hips.
The last 51 years since he first saw Joan Baez at Forest Hills has seen a few victories and too many defeats, but in that moment at Royce Hall he thought of the old saying that reminds us that the journey is the destination.