With a career that dates back to 1959 and the basket house scene around Cambridge, Massachusetts, Joan Baez has made a mark for herself in the world of performing arts because of the connections she seeks with her audiences. Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, a pair of up-and-coming singer-songwriters from Oregon, were chosen by Baez to open for her on this tour, which makes stops on Thursday, February 28, at the Community Theater in Morristown, Friday, March 1, at the State Theater in New Brunswick, and Saturday, March 2, at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, Pennsylvania.
"This is very much like a family," remarks Tracy Grammer, who, with her partner Dave Carter and singer-songwriter Richard Shindell, performs with Baez as part of her band on this tour. "At the end of the show we all stand in a circle and hold hands. For people who have known each other barely a week, we’re a tight-knit group," she adds.
Opening for and performing with the legendary Baez, one of the overnight superstar sensations from the 1960s folk music revival, Grammer says, is not like other tours where opening acts travel on separate buses. On this tour, everyone’s on Joan’s bus.
"Joan is very motherly. She’s always hugging people and kissing people’s cheeks," Grammer says. "She’s a very warm and affectionate and silly person."
Grammer and songwriter Dave Carter have been performing virtually non-stop since they formed their duo four years ago in their home base of Portland, Oregon. Their latest album, "Drum Hat Buddha" was released last June, in time for summer festival season on the Northampton, Massachusetts-based Signature Sounds label. The pair, who performed here last fall for Concerts at the Crossing in Titusville, will return to the area in April with an Outta Sights ‘n Sounds coffeehouse concert in Hightstown.
Grammer grew up on country music and wasn’t all that aware of Joan Baez in her youth. She explains she and Carter were staying at the same hotel outside Columbia, Missouri, at the direction of Baez’s management, so they could all meet.
"We were told by Joan’s manager that she’d meet us at noon the next day," Grammer says, "and Dave thought we were supposed to call Joan in her room. Around noon, we got a phone call in our room and Dave picked it up. It was Joan! He was really awestruck and didn’t know what to say. Then, we left our room and there she was in the hall, in a tee shirt and barefoot with a basket of laundry. She said, `First enlightenment, and then the laundry.’"
Baez spends a good deal of time on tour and at home practicing yoga and meditation, Grammer explains. From the laundry in the hotel, the three went outside and sat under a tree on an unusually warm day. They talked.
"She talked about what our songs were meaning to her and what she was confused about in some lyrics, but we had a lovely time. We just talked for about an hour. And that night, after we saw her show, we knew we really, really wanted to work with her and that it would be wonderful to go on tour with her."
On the tour Richard Shindell, who was born in Lakewood, New Jersey, opens the shows with a 35-minute set. After a short break, Carter and Grammer come on for six or seven tunes, with Baez joining them on the last tune, Carter’s "Hey Conductor." Then, Baez takes a break and comes back later with a larger ensemble, which includes Carter, Grammer, and Shindell as well as a bassist and drummer. After a number of tunes with the band, Baez does a few solo tunes with her guitar and then brings the band back for more songs.
Asked how they were handpicked to join Baez on tour after little more than four years as a performing duo, Carter explains their managers brought them together. "Mark Spector, Joan’s manager, heard us live at the Bottom Line in New York, and he eventually got our CD to Joan," Carter says. Carter and Grammer live together — with a roommate and a cat — in Portland, while Baez lives just outside of San Francisco, so the three have paid visits to each other’s homes.
"When we first met Joan, she told us she liked our record a lot, and the songs I was writing were her kind of songs," Carter says. "While I don’t like to blow my own horn like this, Joan was at a radio station in Pittsburgh for an interview. She was asked, `Are there any songwriters around today that are writing songs like Dylan and some of the other great songwriters of the 1960s?’ She said `Yes, there are two,’ Richard Shindell and myself."
Currently without a record contract — which says a lot about the poor state of the record industry today — Joan Baez was born in 1941 in Staten Island, New York. Raised in California, she began her performing career in coffeehouses around Boston in 1959. Her first big breaks came about after performing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960. In November of that year, she made her New York City debut at the 92nd Street YMCA, coinciding with the release of her first album on Maynard and Seymour Solomon’s Vanguard Recording Society label.
The next watershed was in 1961, when she met Bob Dylan after he opened a show for blues man John Lee Hooker at Gerde’s Folk City in New York’s Greenwich Village. Her second album, "Joan Baez, Volume Two" put her on a national concert tour, and by November 23, 1962, after the release of her third album, "Joan Baez In Concert," she was the subject of a Time magazine cover story.
After shows at the Monterey Folk Festival in 1963 and singing "We Shall Overcome" before a quarter of a million people at a civil rights rally in Washington, D.C., Vanguard Records released "Joan Baez In Concert, Part Two." Ahead of her time, she began withholding 60 percent of her income taxes to protest the growing war in Vietnam by late 1964. The IRS responded by placing a lien against her, but she continued to withhold portions of her taxes for the next 10 years.
After performing at the White House for President Johnson in 1964, she urged him to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam. Also that year, she traveled with the Beatles for a portion of their tour and placed an injunction to block distribution by Fantasy Records of "Joan Baez In San Francisco," an unauthorized release of a demonstration album she recorded as a senior in high school in Palo Alto, California.
By 1965, Phil Ochs’ song, "There But For Fortune" became a hit single for Baez. She performed another tour with Bob Dylan that year. She continued to record and tour, headlining at the Newport Folk Festivals in 1966, 1967, and 1968. In 1970 she performed at the Isle of Wight Festival, the Big Sur Folk Festival and the International Song Festival in Sopot, Poland. Later that year, the film "Woodstock" was released, which featured her performance of "Joe Hill."
By 1972, Baez’s albums "Blessed Are" and "Any Day Now" were certified gold and she was nominated for a "Best Female Vocalist" Grammy award. She switched to A&M Records in 1972, and recorded "Come From The Shadows" as her debut for the label. Her second album for A&M, "Where Are You Now, My Son?" was released in 1973 but the album that puts her across to the broadest cross-section of people was "Diamonds and Rust," released in April, 1975 and certified gold within months of its release.
In 1975, she began a small tour of New England theaters with Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg and others as part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. In May of 1975, she appeared with Phil Ochs, Allen Ginsberg, and others at the "War Is Over" rally in Central Park. In August, she was honored with "Joan Baez Day" in Atlanta. In 1976, she made another fall tour with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, and by 1980, she was so far into the mainstream that she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Antioch College in Ohio and an honorary degree from Rutgers for her political activism and "the universality of her music."
In 1987, Simon & Schuster published her memoirs, "And A Voice To Sing With." The book becomes a New York Times bestseller. In 1990, the video "Joan Baez In Concert," with a guest appearance by Jackson Browne was released, and she toured Europe in the spring and the U.S. in the summer. By 1992, her album "Play Me Backwards" was released on Virgin Records and she began a tour that lasted through 1993. Later in 1993, "Rare, Live and Classic," a CD boxed set chronicling her career from 1959 to 1989, was released.
Baez’s most recent record deal was with Guardian Records, a label that has since gone out of business. In April, 1995, she recorded four shows at The Bottom Line in New York with guests Mary Black, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Mimi Farina, Tish Hinojosa, Janis Ian, the Indigo Girls and Dar Williams. The best of these four nights of performances is released as "Ring Them Bells" on Guardian Records. Her most recent album is 1997’s "Gone From Danger," her second album for Guardian Records. But an equally interesting, digitally remastered retrospective album, "Baez Sings Dylan" was released on Vanguard Records/Welk Music Group in 1998.
Grammer says the tour concert promises to be enjoyable for audience and artists. "They’re going to have a wonderful time because we’re having a wonderful time," she says. "We all love each other and we all love Joan. She tells stories in between tunes, she’s very funny and she’s very good at connecting with people. She’ll probably have a few surprises up her sleeve. Last night she did a version of `Amazing Grace’ but she didn’t sing lead vocals, she started the audience singing it, and then she more or less sang back-up to the audience."
Joan Baez, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. The singer, social activist, goodwill ambassador, and queen of the ’60s folk scene in concert with Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer; Richard Shendell opens. $20 to $38. Friday, March 1, 8 p.m.
Also Thursday, February 28, at 8 p.m., at the Community Theater, 100 South Street, Morristown, 973-539-8008; and Saturday, March 2, at 8 p.m., at Keswick Theater, Glenside, Pennsylvania, 215-572-7650.