Folk music legend Joan Baez returned to Merrill Auditorium on Tuesday night for a well-received concert to kick off her latest tour.

Baez joked about the show being more of a rehearsal, as she and her bandmates were still working out the kinks in the current repertoire. But, except for a few forgotten lyrics and some brief off-mike consultations, the 90-minute concert went smoothly and featured a number of high points.

Baez began the evening at center stage with just her guitar and dug into her roots in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, folk music scene circa 1959. “Freight Train,” with its melancholy lyrics about “the route I’ve gone,” suggested the long way the singer has come from her early days working alongside Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.

Dylan was saluted with a take of his “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” on which Baez’s broad vocal range proved as impressive as ever. Dirk Powell added some tasty mandolin work on this piece; for “Silver Dagger,” another song Baez recorded early in her career, he added banjo. The singer’s son, Gabe Harris, set the rhythm on hand drums and other light percussion instruments.

Baez danced a bit, in a down-home style, during the instrumental break to “Darling Corey,” a song she learned from Seeger. Paul Robeson was also cited as an early and lasting influence for the singer.

The blue jean- and vest-clad singer talked about her time working with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., by way of introduction to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” On this traditional favorite, she traded vocal choruses with Grace Stumberg, whose straightforward delivery contrasted well with Baez’s vibrato-rich style. A couple more spirituals, with Powell adding piano under the soaring vocals of Baez and Stumberg, were moving.

Baez’s guitar technique impressed on her classic “Diamonds and Rust,” and she and the group dug deep into the bluesy “House of the Rising Sun.”

“Billy Rose” was offered in the context of the singer’s work with the Innocence Project and Innocence Network, which focus on freeing wrongfully convicted prisoners. “Deportee” and “Joe Hill” further reinforced Baez’s long involvement with social issues.

The singer didn’t have much to say about current politics, other than to half-jokingly suggest that “denial” may be a strategy for getting through life at the moment. The 75-year-old might have laid on jokes about aging just a little too thick, but the general feeling was that this is the same Joan Baez that most everyone remembers.

Sing-along encores of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” brought the spirit of a not-too-distant past back for a final shared moment.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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