Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson: Beacon Theater 8 November 2011

Two great artists – one known for her beautiful voice and interpretations and the other for his songwriting. Yet Joan Baez wrote one of the most beautiful songs ever and Kris Kristofferson’s voice can break your heart. Two more musicians that I have loved for years but have never seen live. And with Kristofferson it’s a real mystery. In every way – his (former) lifestyle, his looks, his voice, his intelligence, his humor, his caring – he is my type. I should be following him around the country. And as someone who loves folk music and sings it as often as she can, why have I waited so long to see Joan Baez? ‘Tis a puzzlement.

The theater was filled with white-haired older people struggling to get up all those stairs. My seat was in the middle of the balcony and the stage set-up was a microphone, a music stand set-up like a table with Gatorade on it, and other instruments off to the side. Kris Kristofferson ambles on stage, plugs in his acoustic guitar and starts playing. Early into the first song he forgot the lyrics and the audience helped. I immediately noticed how great the sound was – clear and full. It’s the best the Beacon has ever sounded.

Kristofferson would get sniffly every so often and he kept a red bandana on the music stand to take care of that. His voice is still gruff and low and gravelly but he manages to finesse sweetness when needed. His lyrics alone made me cry several times but it was also the timbre of his voice – the ‘I lived this’ quality – that made me cry.

Every story about Kristofferson mentions his military record, his Rhodes Scholarship, his semi-fame as a collegiate athlete, his working as a janitor in Nashville and sleeping in the studios trying to catch a break as a songwriter, his drinking, and his sobering. One of my favorite Kristofferson moments was when he was hosting the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden and the crowd would not stop booing Sinead O’Connor. She couldn’t sing the Dylan song so she spit out the Bob Marley song that she’d sung with the accompanying Pope photo ripping incident on Saturday Night Live and which had prompted the boos and, while she walked off-stage crying, Kristofferson wrapped his arms around her and told her, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

You’ve heard his songs, most made famous by other people – not only recorded once but recorded and re-recorded by other artists. He played for one hour and he sang just about every one of them that you wanted to hear. Songs like “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” “Darby’s Castle” “For the Good Times” “Come Sundown” “Help Me Make It Through the Night” “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” “I’d Rather Be Sorry”

Kristofferson told some stories related to the songs – some while he was singing them and others just as he was finishing. Like telling us, “Roger Miller did a funny scat at the end of this song. But I’m not as funny so I’m just going to end it.” During the “The Silver Tongued Devil and I” he told us that when his youngest son was 5yo and was listening to the song he told his father that this was not a good song. Why? Because you’re blaming others for your mistakes.

When he sang the word “stoned” in “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” an audience member whooped and Kristofferson nodded yes. For “Pilgrim” when he sang, “Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home” he laughed in recognition. And the audience did something I’d never seen before. They clapped for a particularly good lyric – funny, witty, sad, intelligent. If they were moved they showed it immediately and not just at the end of the song.

About halfway through, Joan Baez’ tour assistant, Emma Vasseur, came out to switch guitars for Kristofferson. He told us that he’d been told that his guitar was out of tune but he thinks it’s just him that’s out of tune. Not for me. Kristofferson is very in tune with my life.

Joan Baez is one of the tiniest skinniest legends you will ever see. She walked onto the stage so quietly that half the audience didn’t realize it was her. She did the first song (“God is God”) solo with an acoustic guitar and then had Dirk Powell come out to accompany her. Baez also played for an hour and told us she was going back to her Boston University days when she spent all her time in coffeehouses listening to folk and blues but falling in love with long slow ballads. Especially ballads where people died. She sang “Flora, the Lily of the West” with Powell on banjo and he is amazing. All the instruments on the side were his – banjo, acoustic guitar, guitar bass, fiddle, violin, mandolin, accordion, and keyboards – he was truly a master of them all. Fast, slow, bluesy, country – whatever was needed he was right there. He also sang some pretty harmonies on a few songs. Vasseur came out every song to switch between two guitars for Baez.

Her third song was “Don’t Think Twice” and she did the obligatory Dylan imitation for the last verse. A lot of people laughed and that surprised me. I thought everyone knew that when she sings a Dylan song she sings the last verse as him. The Richard Shindell song “The Ballad of Mary Magdalene” is a classic love song – “But I gave it up, and all for love. It was his career or mine.” “God on Our Side,” which is as relevant today as it ever was. Donovan’s “Catch the Wind,” which she used to sing in the Boston coffeehouses with her sister, Mimi Fariña. Baez sang Steve Earle’s “Jerusalem” and dedicated Phil Ochs’ “There But for Fortune” to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators. I am a huge fan of Phil Ochs and know all his songs backwards and forwards. This was the most beautiful version of the song I’ve ever heard.

Baez’ soprano is still clear and sweet. She doesn’t go for the highest notes anymore but age has given her this full-bodied deep tone when she sings the lower notes. This was especially true for “House of the Rising Sun.” For “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” Baez told us that the version she sings is one she stole from a tape that was given to her. An anonymous woman in a Southern church choir. When Baez was in Geneva, Mississippi in the early 1960s with Dr. Martin Luther King, they were staying in someone’s home. Dr. King went to rest in the bedroom before he had to preach at a local church. Soon they were a half-hour late. Then an hour late. Which in Geneva, Mississippi at that time wasn’t considered late. Then it was two hours. Someone convinced Baez to go in and wake Dr. King so she went in frightened and sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to wake him. Dr. King didn’t open his eyes but he rolled over and asked her to sing another song.

Baez sang Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” And when she did a country and western song she told us that the first time she met Johnny Cash he was with his first wife. And that’s how Cash introduced her. On her own “Diamonds and Rust” she changed “ten years ago” to “forty years ago” and she ended “if you’re offering me diamonds and rust” with “I’ll take the diamonds.”

At one point she sat down and told us that she knew what we were thinking. Has she had work done? Does she do something special to get her hair to look like that? Did she and Dylan have a baby? No to all three.

Kristofferson came out and joined Baez for a two-song encore. The people behind me were confused as to why Kristofferson hadn’t performed “Me and Bobby McGee.” I knew it would be an encore song since I’d seen them perform it on David Letterman the night before. But that performance was terrible. Kristofferson didn’t seem to know the lyrics and he and Baez seemed to be singing two different versions. Happily that was not the case last night. They were totally in sync and they traded off the la-las at the end. Their last song was “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and Kristofferson basically just came in for the ends of sentences in the verses and the audience sang the chorus (the people were singing, right?) and I was so sorry to see it all end.

Shout-out to the rest of Baez’ crew since she lists them on her website and they did a great job – tour manager Blair Woods, sound engineer Jason Raboin, and merchandise salesman Jim Stewart.

By Carene Lydia Lopez