Joan Baez’s name may already be etched in history books, but at her star-studded 75th birthday concert Wednesday night — celebrated 18 days after her actual birthday on Jan. 9 — at New York’s Beacon Theater, she demonstrated she’s as relevant as ever. Joined by a who’s who of legendary musicians that included Paul Simon, Emmylou Harris, Mavis Staples, David Crosby, and Jackson Browne, the iconic folk singer and political activist tore through more than 20 covers and originals with impressive vitality.
“It was relevant when he wrote it,” Baez said when introducing Jackson Browne’s “Before the Deluge” late in the show, “and it’s almost more relevant now, as we head into the abyss.” The show was recorded for a June episode of PBS’ Great Performances, but for now, here are some of its most memorable moments.
1. Baez appeared onstage shortly before the show — to film the crowd on her smartphone
The audience applauded when Baez first took the stage, but she wasn’t coming out to start the gig. Instead she was filming the rabid crowd on her smartphone — something that would’ve seemed like magic when she first appeared in grainy black and white footage in the early ‘60s.
2. She jumped right into topical material
Baez kicks off an 18-city tour next month and she’s pledged to partner with Amnesty International to raise awareness about mass incarceration and the need for prison reform. For her second song, Baez delivered a solo rendition of “There But For Fortune” — a Phil Ochs tune that Baez earned a Grammy nomination for when she released a version of it in 1965 — which lyrically focuses on prisoners, drunks, and the disadvantaged. The early song choice represented an evening where Baez spurned pomp.
3. Baez called out Bob Dylan with a Google reference
Before launching into the traditional folk tune “Seven Curses,” Baez speculated that while the song — which has been recorded in various iterations by Lead Belly, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and many more — likely originated in Scotland or Ireland, Dylan likes to claim credit for it. “Bob Dylan says he wrote it, so that’s how it goes down in Google,” Baez remarked with faux exasperation. Affecting a spot-on impression of her famed folk peer she quipped, “It’s a great song, it’s a great song.”
4. A trio performance with Browne and Harris was the evening’s most politically charged
Baez invited Emmylou Harris and Jackson Browne to the stage to perform “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” a song written by Woody Guthrie in 1948 that documents a plane crash that killed immigrant farmworkers who were being deported from California to Mexico. The three performers traded verses and harmonized beautifully, but in the context of the 2016 election cycle, lyrics like “Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves? The radio says, ‘They are just deportees’” garnered even more attention.
5. Baez beatboxed with Mavis Staples
Staples and Baez performed a riveting a cappella medley of two Civil Rights anthems — “Oh, Freedom” and “Turn Me Around” — that was spectacular and topical in its own right. But the two drew laughs and applause when they rounded out the latter tune with a peculiar hybrid of scatting and beatboxing that was startlingly good.
6. She remembered about Martin Luther King, Jr.
In a talkative mood Wednesday night, Baez prefaced “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” with a fascinating story about one of her interactions with the Civil Rights leader when she was in the Deep South. “We were staying in a modest little town … he fell asleep and nobody wanted to wake him,” recollected Baez, explaining that others present asked her to rouse King. She said that she sang “Swing Low” for him and that, while it didn’t wake him up, he did roll over and remark “Hm… I believe I hear the sound of an angel.”
7. For her stage banter, Baez had the mouth of a sailor
Baez owned her age, adding more color to her “Swing Low” introduction by mocking young people who get jealous of her generation for enjoying cultural touchstones like Woodstock. “You guys had everything!” she said jokingly. “…Mud? Vietnam?” Baez also welcomed the Indigo Girls to the stage with an anecdote about a show she played with them years before where a young man introduced himself and said “Can I have your autograph? It’s for my grandma.” Baez’ response: “Tell your grandmother to go f—k herself!”
8. Baez transcended space and time when duetting on “The Boxer” with Paul Simon
Who needs Garfunkel when you’ve got Baez? Underscored by Richard Thompson’s subtle guitar flourishes, Simon and Baez gave “The Boxer” new life.
God Is God
There But For Fortune
Freight Train (with David Bromberg)
Blackbird (with David Crosby)
She Moved Through The Fair (with Damien Rice)
Catch the Wind (with Mary Chapin Carpenter)
Hard Times (with Emmylou Harris)
Deportees (with Jackson Browne and Emmylou Harris)
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Oh, Freedom / Turn Me Around (with Mavis Staples)
The Water Is Wide (with Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Indigo Girls)
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (with the Indigo Girls)
House of the Rising Sun (with Richard Thompson)
She Never Could Resist a Winding Road (with Richard Thompson)
Before the Deluge (with Jackson Browne)
Diamonds & Ruse (with Judy Collins)
Gracias a la Vida (with Nano Stern)
The Boxer (with Paul Simon)
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down