Before Judy Collins took the stage there was a detailed announcement that this was to be a gig where the use of cameras, phone cameras, Ipad cameras, and all other recording devices were requested to not be used – for the greater enjoyment of the music – not only by the rest of the audience but also those who would otherwise be concentrating on using these various devices rather than focusing on the music. This was not only applauded but, amazingly, pretty much adhered to through two sets.
For we were in the presence of a genuine musical legend – a friend of Dylan, Joni, Joan, and the first to record Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’. Yet for a brief moment after Judy Collins had taken the stage at the nicely full Union Chapel – dressed all in black which only served to heighten her pallor – it seemed that the dread moment had arrived and time had finally caught up with her. As she sang the opening song, ‘Maid of Constant Sorrow’, which was also the title of her first album recorded all the way back in 1961 – her voice strained on a couple of ocassions. Collins is, unbelievably, eighty now, where did the time go? However, following hearty applause she confided that she hadn’t sung the song “in years,” and that was doubtless the explanation for that slight waver, as for the next couple of hours she was, incredibly, never less than vocally perfect.
This appearance followed on from the recent new album ‘Winter Tales’ and the gig publicity had suggested that her collaborator on that album – Jonas Fjeld – would also be appearing but it transpired that this was not the case and Collins was accompanied only by her long time piano player Russell Walden, together giving what must be her regular set, albeit with a few of the songs from the new album included. And what a set it was. Collins has championed a lot of songwriters and her version of ‘Both Sides Now’, here just guitar and piano, is perfection – still sounding fresh on what must have been its several thousandth outing. The joy of “tears and fears and feeling proud to say ‘I love you’ right out loud” the pain of “but now it’s just another show / you leave them laughing when you go / and if you care don’t let them know”. It’s such a beautiful song, and here, Collins’ voice is perfection. There’s more Joni Mitchell with ‘Cactus Song’, the heartless hippy ballad of ever changing lovers “she will love them when she sees them / they will lose her if they follow / and she only means to please them / and her heart is full and hollow, like a cactus tree, whilst she is busy being free.” In between all this radiantly gorgeous music Collins revealed other sides, as a raconteur with a deep well of stories and musical anecdotes to call upon and with quite an acerbic wit with which to tell these tales. She recalled being taken aback when the opener for what she felt was a prestigious gig was Arlo Guthrie, who was just thirteen at the time – then laughing that they’ll soon be heading out on tour together again. She also mentioned why she and Stephen Stills never brought their recent duo album to the UK – they’d played a hundred or more dates in the USA and Judy had wanted to play the Royal Albert Hall, but Steve didn’t want to fly. Our loss.
Other songs that Judy Collins took to her heart included Jacques Brel’s ‘Sons Of’, Jimmy Webb’s ‘Highwayman’ – which appears on the new ‘Winter Tales’ album as does ‘River’ – all songs that she performed on this night. And naturally she regaled the audience with how she met a very handsome and very talented and seemingly shy Leonard Cohen. It’s a fascinating story, with perhaps the most important part being how she was steered towards recording ‘Suzanne’. Her performance of it was above stunning, it’s a song one feels one knows so well but this was like hearing it for the first time all over again with lines that cut right to the heart with their evocation of a total combined enrapture of mind and body – a love that reaches the heights of a religious experience. With the lights dimmed and Collins shimmering in the spotlight, ‘Suzanne’ was a tour de force which, if you let yourself fall into it, was devastating in its delivery. By rights Collins should have had her high heeled boots nailed to the Union Chapel’s stage on its completion, in order that she could be made to sing ‘Suzanne’ repeatedly until, through repetition, the pain finally stopped.
There were some wonderful moments for any Dylanphile, like Collins herself. An unexpected ‘Diamonds and Rust’ was sung as a shout out to Collins’ great friend and fellow folk music revivalist Joan Baez – amazingly making this song of regret and reawakened memories sound as if they had happened to her rather than Baez, every emotion rang true. Dylan himself appeared in song twice before the interval – ‘Masters of War’ rang full of indignation whilst the introduction to ‘Tambourine Man’ told of how Collins first heard this whilst it was being composed late at night at a house party. Collins laughed off the apparent drug references, she hadn’t indulged much as she was “afraid they would get in the way of her drinking.” Although the crowd was encouraged to join in on the chorus, in truth there was only one person in the room who could hit these high notes.
The shorter post-interval part of the evening opened with Judy Collins at the piano – whose position she apologised for as it meant she partly had her back to the audience – for songs that she’d written as a riposte to Leonard Cohen’s questioning of why she never wrote herself. If you’re going to be spurred on to do something then ‘Albatross’ and ‘Since You Asked’ are a pair of pretty good responses but perhaps the third, another song taken from the new album, was the finest of all. ‘Blizzard’ tells of a winter night’s mountain crossing, heavy snows, forced companionship and the sharing of secrets – of lost love and the finding of hope for the future. Collins had the piano swirling like snow making ten foot deep drifts, and her voice was like sparkling sunlight in the boundless mountain skies once the storm was over. The evening ended as Judy Collins’ gigs always end – with her biggest hit, ‘Send in the Clowns’ and an encore of ‘Amazing Grace’. A hugely satisfying evening which saw Judy Collins confirm her status as one of those performers whose careers, it seems, need never end and who have, more than sixty years into performing, new things to say, new music to record and big tours yet to plan. That really is amazing.