Ann Arborites love art: The numerous galleries, half dozen musical venues, University of Michigan Museum of Art and Ann Arbor Art Fair on campus and downtown all attest to that. It is this love of art in all its forms that makes Joan Baez a perfect match for the city’s music-lovers. Baez’s mastery of the art of folk music, together with her liberal politics and anti-Bush witticisms, won over a sold-out crowd at The Ark on Tuesday night.
This comes as no surprise; Ann Arbor is often correctly labeled as a liberal haven. Baez, a lifelong political activist, continues to cling to her beliefs more than 30 years after Woodstock, and she pleased the crowd with her barbed jokes and huge smile. The one-time princess of folk made casual conversation with the audience throughout her show; her devoted fans in the audience blithely referred to her simply as “Joan.”
Baez is ready for the day of reckoning. “I’ve been seeing this bumper sticker that I want to get my hands on,” she confessed into her microphone. “It says, ‘After the Rapture, can I have your stuff?’ ” In addition to lamentations about the treatment of Southerners caught in Hurricane Katrina, Baez also told a hillbilly joke that got more than a few laughs.
It is precisely this kind of magical mix of art and scathing liberal politics that make Baez a perfect fit for Ann Arbor. Had Joni Mitchell, Baez’s vocal and stylistic doppelganger, taken the stage, the reaction from the crowd would have differed. Whereas Mitchell is given to singing songs about personal trials and revelations, Baez incorporates folk classics by other artists into her performances along with her own songs. Her set on Tuesday night included Johnny Cash’s “Long Black Veil,” Woody Guthrie’s poignant “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” and Elvis Costello’s “Scarlet Tide.”
The aging baby boomers that made up nearly all of Tuesday’s crowd didn’t want to hear too much about individual pain and suffering. They wanted music, art in its purest form. And Joan, the master painter of folk’s musical landscape, gave them exactly what they wanted.
Standing between two younger male instrumentalists and back-up singers, Baez looked the part of the dignified and revered grandmother of folk. Her voice lilted and soared amazingly from the sweet strain of the youthful girl she once was into a sonorous, resonant alto indicative of her age and wisdom.
Familiar tunes such as The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Bob Dylan’s “Farwell Angelina” and a stunning a cappella version of the gospel staple “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were interspersed with her humbling asides and hilarious commentaries. Without leaving the stage, Baez bowed before the encore, which she prefaced by stating a wry truism very close to her heart: “For me, it was never about the money. It was always about the adulation.”