By Robert Israel.
In “Diamonds and Rust,” which she sang at the close of a set attended by a capacity crowd at Tanglewood’s Music Shed in Lenox, MA (on June 23), Joan Baez, now silver haired at age 72, crooned, “Now you’re telling me you’re not nostalgic/Then give me another word for it.”
Of course it is nostalgia—the idealized remembrance of things passed—that brought the audiences to attend her concert, as well as to the performance of another stalwart troubadour of yore, Sting (Bank of America Pavilion, Boston, on June 21). Still, like The Rolling Stones, who played at Boston’s TD Garden on June 12, these performers have enjoyed popularity for several decades, holding onto their fans by drawing on their considerable repertories while also continuing to evolve as artists with new releases.
Nostalgia needn’t be associated with a syrupy brand of bittersweet pleasure, although the tenderly tough theme of Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust” deals with overindulging in the aftertaste that lingers, years later, from an unfulfilled romance. Both musicians prove they can be nostalgic without pandering to sentimentality, or becoming trapped in recycling their catalogues.
Baez, the subject of a recently released televised biography on PBS, referred to the past throughout her set but only to offer insightful commentary into the origins of the the songs, not to dwell in misty-eyed reverie. She told the Tanglewood audience she had visited the site in upstate New York where she played the Woodstock festival 44 years before, remarking that she enjoyed the countryside and the new museum there. And when it came time to introduce her band, which includes the talented percussionist Gabe Harris, she said, “And when I performed at Woodstock, I was pregnant, and Gabe’s my boy,” and she turned to him with the glow of a proud mother.
Baez has remained true to her commitment to social activism—raising her arm in a fist at the onset of the concert, singing a song like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which dates from the civil rights era when she marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But she also displayed impishness: clogging on stage, giggling between numbers, dancing with her guitarist, and wrapping arms around the Indigo Girls, who opened for her, and later joined her on stage for closing numbers.
Sting, who held forth at the Bank of America Pavilion for two hours, is a decade younger than Baez but looks remarkably fit. He pranced about the stage with his bass guitar and led his crack five-piece band in renditions of his hits from the 1980s and 1990s. These included the imbecilic “De Do Do Do De Da Da Da,” (which I first heard during a spring break visit to Deerfield Beach, Florida in 1980) to the more lyrical, and sweetly poetic, “Fields of Barley,” which, he told the audience, was written after walking through the gilded meadows near his home in northern England. He offered brief reflections about his reverence for Boston, remembering when he played the rough and tumble clubs in Kenmore Square with the Police, his band at the time, and how that led to his concerts at the old Boston Garden. “I owe Boston a lot for helping me with my career,” he said, to appreciative cheers and applause.
Baez, too, celebrated her Boston roots, and part of the nostalgia of seeing her, and Sting, is to relive those experiences of attending concerts at a more youthful time in our lives. Happily, both musicians shine on the depths of their talents yesterday and today, they show us that they are continuing to evolve, and they performed without a trace of mawkishness.