By Mike Finkelstein
Like many kids in 1967, when I first heard Judy Collins singing Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” I was rather mesmerized. What a majestic and evocative sound her voice had coming through the transistor radio over that tinkling keyboard. The resigned sentiments of that song just seeped into a young person’s imagination. A blue set of feelings contrasted to a delicate, cheery, and melodic arrangement — a bit of a mixed message. Yet there was such an infatuating sound to that recording.
On Saturday night, over forty years later, I finally saw Judy Collins do this and many other songs in different styles at the Disney Concert Hall. The show was a self-narrated journey through her long and distinguished career. Over the years and through the show she touched on styles ranging from folk music to folk rock to gospel to show tunes.
Collins is now 72 years old and looked svelte, radiant, and light on her feet as she walked onstage dressed elegantly from her shoulders to her feet in black. She has a thick mane of silver hair that cascades down her back and plays across her shoulder blades. She strummed a 12-string guitar in open tunings for most of the show and at times it served as a reminder of how intricate a voice an open tuned guitar chord can take on. The folkies were really onto something with those open tunings!
Over the better part of her career as an interpreter of other people’s songs, Collins has put herself in touch with some wonderful material. One such song was Sandy Denny’s hauntingly beautiful “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” which she dedicated to Stephen Stills (with whom she was involved as the Judy Blue Eyes inspiration for the song “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”). The original version of the Denny song was played by a full rock band, but Saturday night it was just Collins with her musical director Russell Walden on piano, providing exquisite support. From that same album she also performed Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon,” a wistful song of love for a rodeo rider and, as I remember, it was another one of those songs that could take your imagination for a ride when it came on the radio. That is still the case.
For all of these songs, the blast from the past is the power of her voice. Hers is a classically trained voice that she decided to use for more contemporary purposes, beginning with folk music. While she can push the air mightily, the impressive thing about her voice is the control she has at any volume in the higher registers. She sang several songs a capella, notably “Amazing Grace,” and, surprisingly “Suzanne,” by Leonard Cohen. I must admit I would have loved to hear “Suzanne,” with her spiraling guitar arrangement for it. It also seemed only natural that Collins would reference her contemporary and recent collaborator in folk singing, Joan Baez, with a soaring version of Baez’ song for Bob Dylan, “Diamonds and Rust.”
One of Collins’ ongoing creative focuses is working towards getting quality new songs heard and recorded. She assured us that there are indeed many great songs still being written out there, and then performed one by Amy Speace, “The Weight of The World.” It’s a poignant and appealing piece of music that tells the story of watching one’s brother go off to fight in a war that might not have been necessary at all — and come home to lie in the frozen ground.
This show was a nice introduction to Collins’ career. As the evening progressed one could not help but be very impressed with the diversity of her material and the quantity and quality of her collaborations with other writers and performers. Several of the songs took me immediately back in time and I’ll probably have to get my mitts on a copy of “Who Knows Where The Time Goes?”
Judy Collins has had a rich life with some very high highs and some challenging lows — and she has taken all of this and turned it into great music and insightful writing. This is exactly what a good artist expects to do.
To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.