Judy Collins

September 15, 2012

Café Carlyle  –  September 11 – 29

Here’s a lesson in how to maintain a singing career that still thrives after fifty-one years: always choose impeccable material; keep your voice in shape; focus on delivering the lyric without succumbing to the temptation to fall into the vocal or song style of the moment; and stay in physical shape so you can endure for the long haul and still cut a stunning figure on the stage in your seventies.

These are the lessons one sees and hears when the ageless and timeless Judy Collins comfortably finds her spot, center stage at the Café Carlyle. Immediately thanking the sold-out crowd with a broad smile and throwing back her snowy tresses, she launches into the welcoming “Open the Door” (Collins). It is clear that she has lost none of that heavenly, silvery soprano that has made her voice instantly identifiable for all these decades. Through almost all of her 90-minute set, she stands at the mic with her guitar strapped over her shoulders, accompanied by Russ Waldron on piano. (It may surprise some to learn that she began her musical career as a child prodigy on the piano and didn’t learn guitar until she had entrenched herself in the folk scene of the 1960s.)

Collins is as much a storyteller as she is a musician, which may explain her love of lyric-laden songs. She hardly pauses for breath between songs as she tells anecdotes from her remarkable life: growing up with her blind, hard-drinking father, who was a radio host and also a singer of standards; starting her folk-singing career at Gerde’s Folk City in 1961, where Peter Yarrow (just starting with Peter, Paul and Mary) jokingly told her, “Keep your schedule open in case it doesn’t work out with Mary”; her on-again, off-again romance and friendship with Stephen Stills; and fascinating trivia about her recordings and tours. Collins’s life is an open book (she has, in fact, written several memoirs), and even though she has known great tragedy, she maintains a self-deprecating and easy-going banter with an unapologetic and humorous tone. Experience has been burnished into wisdom and art.

Although she has been singing many of these songs for decades, Collins’s interpretations of her well-known hits like “Both Sides Now” (Joni Mitchell) and “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” (Sandy Denny) still have remarkable freshness; one can see the wheels turning in her mind as she considers what the words mean to her now. Her program demonstrates that she has covered some of the biggest names in songwriting, offering a selection from Jimmy Webb (“Campo de Encino”), Stephen Stills (“Helplessly Hoping”), Leonard Cohen (“Bird on the Wire”), and Paul McCartney and John Lennon (“In My Life”). Her first encore is Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” which was an unlikely radio hit for her in the mid-’70s. Waldron’s spare arrangement and Collins’s undramatic reading really push the lyric to the fore, which is as it should be.

Although not on her official set list, Collins often punctuates her patter with a cappella renderings of songs, and even gets the entire audience to sing along with her on “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (Pete Seeger). She is also not shy about sharing her own compositions.

Opening night was September 11, and she gave her own tribute, “Kingdom Come (The Fireman Song)”, which had many dabbing their eyes. Even better was when she finally sat down at the piano to sing “In the Twilight,” an elegiac remembrance of her mother. Called back for a second encore, a fan shouted “My Father,” a valentine to her own father. “Why not?” she said. “I’m easy.” When she finished and another yelled out, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” she replied, “I’m not that easy. You’ll have to come back to hear some of the others.” Indeed, it would take many nights to cover all of the songs with which she is associated, and one can expect the set list to vary throughout the three-week run.

Judy Collins, an artist through and through who seems never to have sold out, is well worth a visit to the Carlyle. We are blessed to have her in our midst.



About the Author

Robert Windeler is the author of 18 books, including biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Burt Lancaster. As a West Coast correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine, he covered movies, television and music, and he was an arts and entertainment critic for National Public Radio. He has contributed to a variety of other publications, including TV Guide, Architectural Digest, The Sondheim Review, and People, for which he wrote 35 cover stories. He is a graduate of Duke University in English literature and holds a masters in journalism from Columbia, where he studied critical writing with Judith Crist. He has been a theatre critic for Back Stage since 1999, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and is a member of The Players and the American Theatre Critics Association.