Joan Baez had grown up in Palo Alto and was good friends with Sara Ruppenthal, Jerry’s first wife. Despite those connections and her incredible voice, Jerry was not enamored with Baez in the early sixties. Still a die-hard folkie, Jerry disparaged Joan’s musicianship and bemoaned her lack of folk purity. But he also was obviously influenced by her, as his comment in a 1967 interview with Ralph Gleason makes clear:
when Joan Baez’s first record came out I heard it and I heard her finger picking guitar, I’d never heard anything like it before so I got into that.
Outside of sharing the bill at a few concerts and festivals, like Woodstock, Baez and the Grateful Dead did not cross paths in the sixties. However, in 1980, Baez and Mickey began a romantic relationship that continued until the middle of 1982. Dating Mickey led Baez to attend her first Dead show, later describing, to David Browne, the scene as “a roomful of slow-motion robotic weirdness accompanied by the smell of heavy patchouli and drugs.”
Also during this time, Baez started recording an album in Mickey’s Novato studio with the Dead as her backup band. Baez readily admits “it was a strange combination.” And Jerry was not too interested in participating. At one point, he even “claimed he’d gotten lost in the fog on the way north” after he arrived hours late to a session. The album was never released, and Baez has described it as
a series of imaginative mistakes! It was interesting. I mean, they are loose cannons, all of them. Some of the things we recorded came out beautifully. Some of it is pretty obscure-sounding.
In 1981, Baez planned “Dance for Disarmament,” an anti-nuke benefit. It was billed as Joan Baez and Friends, and presumably because of Mickey’s connection, Jerry and Bobby were included as guests on the advertising. At the concert, Mickey, Merle Saunders, and others opened as High Noon; Baez played a solo set; and then the Dead backed Baez for another set before the band played a final one on their own.
On the opening Me and Bobby McGee that evening, Baez and Bobby trip over each other vocally, leading to a muddled first Dead acoustic version of the tune. The rest of the set was a mix of Baez originals from the unreleased album, covers, and traditional tunes. Baez’s voice is resplendent throughout, but there is not much Dead about the set as Baez leaves little space for musical exploration. Still, Oh Boy, with the interplay between Bobby and Joan is a lot of fun. But as Lost Live Dead explains, Jerry and Brent were so perturbed by not having any room to really light off, that they left the stage following that tune and missed the final two songs of Baez’s set. Moreover, neither came out for the show’s encore, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, which Baez sang lead vocals on backed by the rest of the Dead.
Given Jerry and Brent’s apparent frustration with Joan, it is surprising that she ended up playing with the band just three weeks later, during the 1981 New Year’s run. The format of Baez’s contribution to those shows was similar to the benefit. However, rather than a lengthy solo set, Baez played only a few tunes by herself before the Dead, still sans Brent, joined her on stage. Me & Bobby McGee appeared both nights, and each was much improved from the earlier rendition. The traditional Barbara Allen on the first night is a clear highlight as well. On the tune, Baez’s singing is sweet. And Jerry has a nice little solo in the middle, though Joan comes back in on vocals too soon, cutting it off.
The next night, Baez sings a Tunisian New Year song in the middle of her set, as she had the evening before. This time, Mickey gets involved on drums, giving it a little Ollin Arageed feel. It would have been really neat to hear this tune evolve over a few more evenings or even have Baez do the song out of Drums. But alas, it was not to be. There are a few other treats in the New Year’s show, including Bobby and Joan’s great harmonies on Bye Bye Love and the traditional folk song, Banks of the Ohio, which is just super.
All-in-all though, it seems the Dead and Baez really did not work well together. Joan’s voice is tremendous, and with it, she leaves little room for the band. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if Baez sat back more, as Donna would do, and let the boys have a go or if she was more comfortable keeping pace with the band on her guitar. The closest Baez and the Dead got to the latter was on the New Year’s encore. It was, once again, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue. But this time, Jerry was very much present. And instead of carrying the bulk of the vocal effort, Baez’s lovely voice complements Jerry’s vocals and guitar work.
Given the seeming conflict between Jerry and Baez at the shows and in the studio, it is a sweet surprise that six years later, in 1987, the two, along with Bobby and John Kahn, played an outstanding acoustic set together at an AIDS benefit.