Joan Baez
Duke’s Page Auditorium, Durham
Sunday, March 20, 2016

Joan Baez pulled no punches when she visited Duke University’s Page Auditorium Sunday. She played the same room in the mid-sixties. Just as she spoke out then against the troubles facing the country, she did it again now. After walking on stage by herself, met by backdrop lighting and stage fog, she kicked off the show with a local favorite, Libba Cotten’s “Freight Train.”

After a handful of songs, she welcomed her band, which included multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell, percussionist Gabriel Harris, and back-up vocalist Grace Stumberg. Shortly thereafter, Baez started in on Donald Trump, almost as though she could not contain herself any longer. She referred to the presidential parody as a “troglodyte,” who among other things was, “dishonest, racist, and a bully.” She went on to suggest that the best way to counteract his inflammatory rallies was to hold a prayer vigil.

The Trump commentary served as an intro of sorts to one of Baez’s more well-known numbers, “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” by Woody Guthrie. The song focuses on a plane of migrant workers who crashed and died, humanizing the people who faced racist treatment before, during, and after the event. The tale is a staple in the American protest songbook.

The night before, Baez performed in Birmingham, Alabama. She visited the 16th Street Baptist Church for the first time since 1963. The church was the site of a bombing that killed four girls and became a beacon of the Civil Rights Movement. Baez remembered having been at Mills College in nearby Fairfield, Alabama, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. just days before the blast. She remembers King remarking to the crowd that “If we can’t love those with hate in their hearts, than we have no movement.” This was a lesson, she said, for everyone in today’s political climate.

The band then delivered a beautiful rendition of “Oh Freedom” before clearing the stage as Baez sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” accompanied only by faint finger-picking on guitar. As the night wound down, Baez made it clear that, despite Madeleine Albright remarking, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t vote for Hilary Clinton,” she hoped hell was air-conditioned. She supports that “cranky little Jewish guy,” as she put it.

The comment was met with a rousing applause from the sold-out crowd. Baez encored with John Lennon’s “Imagine.” As she and the band received a standing ovation, her thousand-watt smile lit up the room one last time.