By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 2008
The iconic folk singer Joan Baez opened her Wednesday night concert at the Birchmere with a civil rights anthem that suddenly sounded celebratory: "We Shall Overcome," the old protest song whose message of resolve and sweeping social change played like a valedictory in the wake of Barack Obama's election.
Forty-five years ago, at the Lincoln Memorial, Baez famously sang "We Shall Overcome" as she stood beside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington. Now, she was heralding the ascendancy of the country's first black president, and you didn't have to be a graying hippie to be nearly overwhelmed by the symbolism and symmetry.
The a cappella performance was stunning, even though her clarion soprano has lost some of its once-breathtaking power and lift. At 67, Baez works mostly in her middle range now, but she can still sound like an angel.
If her performance Wednesday -- though warm and comforting -- lacked the bell-like clarity that was her signature in the '60s, there was a good reason: "My voice is a little scratchy 'cause I screamed all night," she told the capacity crowd, which hollered its approval. (A second sold-out show was scheduled for last night at the Birchmere.)
Baez began performing 50 years ago in the Boston area, and Wednesday's set was constructed as something of a survey-cum-celebration of her long career. For more than 90 minutes, she sang songs both political and personal, from the bright bluegrass of one of her first recorded songs, "Lily of the West," and a powerful cover of the Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," to multiple songs from her latest album, "Day After Tomorrow," so new that Baez needed to consult a lyric sheet during the Steve Earle song "I Am a Wanderer."
Inspired by an audience member who'd asked about the first song she'd ever written, Baez dusted off "Sweet Sir Galahad," which she performed solo acoustic, lending a striking intimacy to the performance. Mostly, though, she sang with a superlative three-piece string band whose Appalachian instrumentation suited her vocals particularly well.
Back in the day, when she sang on the front lines of the civil rights and antiwar movements, Baez earned a reputation as one of the most earnest figures in popular culture (prompting the "Saturday Night Live" skit "Make Joan Baez Laugh"). Though there was a decided sincerity to much of the music Wednesday night, Baez also flashed a wicked wit -- particularly when it came to her former paramour Bob Dylan, whose nasal singing style she mocked during a version of his own "Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word."
In fact, Baez was in exceptionally high spirits on the evening after the historic presidential election, peppering the 22-song set with humorous stories about her nonagenarian mother, her friendship with King and her reaction to Obama's victory, which was to rush screaming from her hotel wearing an animal-print robe.
But, she said, upon seeing that there weren't many like-minded people on the streets of Alexandria, aside from the guys in her band, she jumped into a taxi and headed into Washington. She wound up in the celebratory scrum near the White House, hugging strangers and still wearing that robe.
We shall overcome, but we shall not overdress.