Brightened by this Night - Joan Baez

Notes from the Joan Baez concert in Wellington, 2013



I call the hall an egg ship. The shape oval. The walls warm, wooden.

Baez enters the stage and the calm begins. The balm. Songs of faith, determination, joy. A song in Te Reo, the words on a many-folded sheet of white paper, a song in Spanish, and all songs in what I may call a language of confident love. Her selection of music affirms what is good, or can be good, in our world.

In front of us, a mother and son.

Beside us, in the last seat of the back row, a woman sitting alone, like a single bookend. 

In her hands, the programme for ‘An Evening with Joan Baez’, and tonight is the last evening of the tour, in Wellington, at the Michael Fowler Centre, with its two thousand, two hundred and ten seats, all taken for the eight o’clock performance on Saturday, 31 August 2013.

The fiddler is the pianist, guitarist, and banjo man who sings to feed him cornbread when he’s hungry and whiskey when he’s drunk. His shirt is untucked, and the drummer wears no shoes.

Baez changes her guitar after almost every song. Her assistant comes with a tuned guitar, hands it to Baez, turns off the amplifier, removes the cord from the guitar just played, inserts it into the new one, turns on the amp again, then exits, stage right. This becomes a ritual.

Then Baez invites the same assistant to stay on stage, to join her in song: Hard Times. Their voices together becomes something I cherish, and they repeat the togetherness in Purea Nei  o Te Hau, and then The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, one of many encores.

The crowds - in all sections of the hall, to whom she has bowed in several directions - are asked to join several of the encores. I join, yet also like to be still and listen to the egg ship hall in song.  The body cannot have both experiences at once.

Throughout, there are whistles, shouts, and at one point, Baez says our calls sound like the Botanical Gardens. The man beside me has the last clap for one song, and I for another, but for every single song, there is a long and authentic applause. I hear one ‘Amen’.

Baez reminds us that it is the fiftieth year since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech I Have A Dream. That day in Washington, D.C., was quite a day, she says, but to remember that the speech was just one of hundreds of speeches King had delivered to the world.

She tells us a story from a Mississippi morning.  A Sunday. Martin Luther King is to preach, but is fast asleep, exhausted. They wait and wait, until Baez is asked to go to his room and sing him awake. When he hears the song, he rolls over, mumbles that he has heard the voice of an angel, and the slumber continues. The song that morning, and now again this evening: Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

The woman beside me has tears in her eyes from all the beauty, as do I, and when the concert ends at about ten o’clock, we do not want to leave.

We stand in the foyer with many other circles of people, brightened by this night.

Written by

Madeleine Slavick

13 Jan 2020