Baez gives imperfect, wonderful show

Joan Baez’s “Baez on the Bayou” tour, a suite of four shows over three nights in Lafayette, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, reached the Red Dragon Listening Room in the Red Stick on Saturday.

It’s possible that Baez, 72, the iconic folk singer who performed at Woodstock in 1969 and, 50 years ago, the March on Washington, D.C., during which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, hasn’t played a venue as small as the Red Dragon since her career began 55 years ago.

In August 2011, for instance, Baez performed for a crowd in excess of 1,000 at the Baton Rouge River Center Theatre. At the Red Dragon, she played two shows, both filled to the venue’s 110-person capacity.

“My manager is very upset, because he likes everything to be perfect for me,” Baez said before her first song at Saturday’s early show. “I said, ‘I would like to do something imperfect and wonderful.’ ”

The performance that Baez and Dirk Powell — the Breaux Bridge-based multi-instrumentalist she introduced as her band — gave was not perfect. It was unusually intimate, minus the normal space and formality that separates a performer from an audience.

Turns out that Baez, despite her significance in American music and history, is a down-to-earth human being who loves to dance, Cajun style, as she did early Saturday and then again Saturday night at the Red Dragon.

Baez and Powell performed a sampling of her classics and some surprises, including traditional Creole music sung in French and a Powell original, “Just the Way You Are.” The latter song, featuring Powell at the piano, put Baez in Elton John-style pop mode.

But pop-oriented music was the exception at the show. More often Baez stayed in traditional folk form, accompanying herself with her own intricate, acoustic guitar finger-picking. Powell moved from banjo to mandolin to accordion to piano to upright acoustic bass. He sang, too.

Baez’s friend Alan Abrahams, a record producer who moved to Baton Rouge from Los Angeles about 18 months ago, introduced her. Baez, one of Abrahams’ dozens of clients, wanted to visit Abrahams and his wife, Margaret Marston, she explained, and then, at Powell’s suggestion, she agreed to perform some under-the-radar concerts while she was in Louisiana. Marston and another singer, Johanna Divine, occasionally joined Baez and Powell as backup and lead vocalists.

With one of the show’s early selections, “The Lily of the West,” Baez made light of the folk music she sang early in her career. In the song’s lyrics, she said, “someone has to be either miserable or dead.”

She didn’t take her connection to Bob Dylan seriously either. In the middle of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” she did a dead-on Dylan impression. It got laughs, but the crowd also couldn’t help but sing along with “Baby Blue” as well as Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”

As well-received as the Dylan songs were, Baez’s self-penned hit “Diamonds and Rust” and her take on the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” another of her major hits, were among the show’s best moments.

“Bless your hearts,” she said before leaving the stage. “It’s been a lovely night.”