The folk legend brings a beguiling blend of classics and conversation in Tennessee
To succeed in the music biz, or in any form of entertainment for that matter, the ability to connect with an audience is always essential.
While there are some artists who appear to simply go through the motions when it comes to their concerts — are you listening Mr. Dylan? — others ensure a connection with the crowd while ensuring they remain eagerly engaged.
Judy Collins is one of those performers who takes that personal approach, and at age 82, she’s still as eager as always to entertain and enlighten. This past Sunday night at the Clayton Center for the Arts located on the historic campus of Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee, she proved that point, not only by performing some of the songs that have been such an integral part of her 60-plus year storied career, but also by sharing stories as well.
Looking resplendent under her huge outcrop of silver hair and draped in a purple gown that made her appear like some regal character from a Christmas pageant, she and her two accompanists — on piano and guitar and pedal steel respectively — played a selection of songs that were culled from all portions of that aforementioned career, from the sources of her early inspirations up through a handful of songs that will appear on a new album of all original material set for release next February. One of those songs, “I Was a Girl in Colorado,” was clearly autobiographical in nature, further adding to the intimacy of the evening overall.
“You’re looking at the original American Idol winner, circa 1956,” she joked while offering her own intro. She then noted how the stage hands appeared to know who she was, but only due to her appearances on The Muppet Show.
VIDEO: Dueling pianos with Judy Collins and Rowlf Dog on The Muppet Show
In fact, Collins is quick with her quips and some of the best response she received during the hour and 45 minute program was to her narratives. She noted that as a child she took piano lessons from an accomplished classical pianist who urged her to “Stick with Mozart and put away the guitar.” Nevertheless, once Collins came in contact with folk radio and traditional standards such as “Barbara Allen” and “Gypsy Rover,” she was hooked, and her calling became clear. She shared stories of her days in Greenwich Village when the folk scene was booming at the intersection of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and she went to great length to describe many of the colorful characters she met along the way. She noted that it was Leonard Cohen who encouraged her to perform her own material (“In 1967, I was the only person in the Village not doing my own songs…”), and she sang several of her originals she wrote as a result.
Other anecdotes followed, including the first time she witnessed a young Robert Zimmerman, later to change his name to Bob Dylan. “I thought he was hopeless,” she says now, admitting she didn’t find his songs or singing at all appealing. “I didn’t know how he was going to make it.”
Nevertheless, she quickly changed her mind. She segued into a cover of Dylan’s pointed anti-war anthem “Masters of War,” before describing how late one night, after a party at his manager Albert Grossman’s home in Woodstock, New York, she awoke to hear Dylan putting the final touches on “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
(She decline to mention that Roger — then Jim — McGuinn contributed to her early albums prior to founding the Byrds and having an initial hit with that same song.)
Regardless, her take on that tune did it justice.
AUDIO: Judy Collins “Masters of War”
Naturally, Collins also focused on her initial encounter with Joni Mitchell, telling the audience that her friend Al Kooper called her at 3 a.m. one morning and told her about this young singer he had followed home after a gig. Mitchell then got on the phone and sang her “Both Sides Now” for the first time.
Collins continued to focus on her relationship with Mitchell, opening her set with “Chelsea Morning,” eventually proceeding into a moving rendition of “River” and saving “Both Sides Now” for close to the concert’s conclusion. Notably, Collins was in fine voice throughout, hitting the high notes and sharing her trademark quiver in the process. She covered a lot of ground, switching from 12 string guitar (which for a time, she seemed to have trouble tuning) and then sitting at the piano to play some new songs destined for the aforementioned all originals album.
Other highlights included a cover of Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman,” a touching rendition of pal Joan Baez’s “Diamond and Rust,” and a stirring encore of “Amazing Grace” which she enticed her mostly elderly audience to sing as well.
Despite the fact that she dropped a lot of other famous names— Kris Kristofferson, Michael McDonald and Willie Nelson, among them, the most surprisingly thing about the show was what she didn’t delve into. There was no “Someday Soon,” “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” or “Send in the Clowns.” So too, there was no mention of the fact that she inspired Stephen Stills to pen “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” in her honor.
It seemed bewildering, but only until a certain stanza from “Both Sides Now” came to mind:
“But now it’s just another show
And you leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away”
Of course, Collins did make it a point to give herself away while reciting her early history. And in so doing, she offers the impression that no, this is not just another show. Indeed, with Collins’ commitment to stay on the road well until next year, one can only hope the other material will eventually find its way into her set list as well.
VIDEO: Judy Collins on Amanpour & Co.