Live Review | The Duchess, York | Review by Allan Wilkinson
For some of us, the introduction to acoustic music came at a time when the sound of the electric guitar had got just about as loud (Townsend), as aggressive (Townsend, Hendrix) and as sneerfully complicated (Zappa) as it was likely to get. In 1969 the Woodstock Festival certainly marked the height of rock culture of the time, but there amongst the likes of The Who, Ten Years After, Canned Heat, Santana and Jimi Hendrix, with his memorable take on the Star Spangled Banner, came the unexpected appearance of three ex-members of three previously successful bands. Crosby, Stills and Nash, this time armed with acoustic guitars, something we’d almost forgotten about, came out of the darkness and brought a lighter, more harmonious sound that some of us had probably been waiting for. Some of those watching the festival a couple of years later, albeit thousands of miles east of Woodstock and on the big screen, heard for the first time a sound that would mark a change of direction in the music we would now prefer to have infiltrate our already bulging cardboard boxes by the Dansette. As Stephen Stills sang “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” in front of half a million people, it never occurred to me that I would one day be in the same dressing room as the beholder of those engaging blue eyes that Stills sang so eloquently about from the Woodstock stage in ‘69. Even forty years on, I can see something in those eyes that may have attracted the young Stills and I found myself unashamedly spellbound by this woman sitting across from me backstage at the Duchess tonight. “Would you like some tea?” she asked, as I settled down to chat to her about her life and music amongst other things. I declined the offer knowing full well that time was of the essence and I had so much to discuss with her in the brief interval between sets to be bothering about the PG Tips. Judy Collins, now in her 70th year, may have an apparent physical frailness, yet she also has a certain strength of character hardly altered in her fifty year recording career. The stage at the Duchess was set fittingly for the occasion; a simple flower arrangement set on an occasional table, a Roland piano to the left and taking centre stage, a guitar stand looking after Judy’s signature Martin 12 string. I overheard someone sitting on the second row say “this is where music should be seen, not at the Opera House”. He was right of course; nothing quite beats being up close and personal, especially if the act you are about to see is something of a legend of popular song. Judy, accompanied by her musical director Russell Walden played a set of just thirteen songs, yet her set was scattered with anecdotal remembrances and snippets of songs that aptly illustrate her life so far. Standards like “My Funny Valentine”, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” and “Some Enchanted Evening”, all popped up somewhere during the set, along with the more folk orientated “Bottle of Wine”, “The Last Thing On My Mind” and “Thirsty Boots”. Judy remembers lyrics like the rest of us remember important things we have to do; once they come to mind, she just has to sing them, almost as a reminder to herself. Known more as an eclectic singer of contemporary folk songs, Judy gravitated to folk music in the wake of the folk revival after studying classical music, playing Debussy and Rachmaninov, before discovering the power of the folk music of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and headed toward Greenwich Village to busk. With the early songs of burgeoning song writing talents such as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen from Canada, Randy Newman from California and Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band from Scotland, Collins brought an awareness of these artists to a wider audience, even encouraging Cohen to become a performer. “I was very lucky because there I was in the midst of this froth of creativity and song writing and all kinds of people would find me. I had a record label since 1961, when I started recording traditional songs and then on the third album I decided to record ‘city singer’ songs, so that was Pete Seeger, Ewan Maccoll, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and Mike Settle. Mike Seeger was around too of course who died this past year. I was just looking for good songs, that’s what I was looking for, good songs”. Backstage, a good humoured Judy joked about being on both Sesame Street and The Muppet Show as well as being invited to sing at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. What kind of gig is that? I enquired. “Very, very exciting, we were all hysterical with joy and I found out a year earlier that he was a big fan and that I had met him when he was still a Governor and he had come to see me and made some very complimentary comments about how wonderful I was and how much better I was than when he had first time he saw me in 1964. This was 1991 and he was sort of a retread fan, which happens if you stay in the business long enough, you have people who fell in love with you forty-five, fifty years ago and all of a sudden they see you again and they go ‘oh you’re just the same or better’, so that was the kind of fan he was, which was very exciting”. Taking to the small Duchess stage tonight, Judy started her set with “Chelsea Morning”, the recorded version of which Bill and Hilary first heard in the 1960s, that subsequently was the inspiration for naming their daughter Chelsea. “Very complimentary” said Judy. As Judy signed a bunch of rare LP records that people handed to her tour manager earlier, I asked the Seattle-born singer about her early years living in Los Angeles and Denver, where she studied classical piano and whether playing Debussy may have given her that all important sense the melody that she has been equipped with over the past five decades. “I think that has everything to do with it, being able to study all of that classical repertoire and then when I finally did start writing, when I was 28, there was a background to do it. Also because of all the studying there was a great deal of discipline to do what I do today”. Judy found folk music when she was in her teens, around the age of 14, and she admits that it took over her life, literally. “I heard a couple of songs on the radio and bang! They were the “Gypsy Rover” and a version of “Barbara Allen” sung by Jo Stafford”. Judy’s only traditional song of the night, a beautiful airing of “John Riley”, a song that appeared on her very first album A Maid of Constant Sorrow (1961), reminded the York audience precisely what a stunning interpreter of folk songs she was back then and still is, even fifty years on. Much of the set from that point on consisted of contemporary songs by the likes of The Beatles with “Norwegian Wood”, Sandy Denny with “Who Knows Where The Time Goes”, and more recently Amy Speace with “The Weight of the World”. Although none of her many Leonard Cohen covers made it into the set tonight, his subliminal presence is always there when you’re in the company of Judy Collins. Cohen’s songs have featured in Judy’s repertoire ever since she first recorded Suzanne for her In My Life album in 1966, before Cohen was really known. “Nobody knew him, he came down from Toronto and was reading obscure poetry in little clubs in Toronto and his friend Mary, who I knew in New York, said he wants to come and play you some songs and have you tell him whether they are songs or not. So he did, he came to my house and sang me Suzanne and that was the beginning of a very important relationship creatively. He also was the one who told me to start writing my own songs so that was a big help for me. You know, I put in my two cents for Leonard Cohen for years”. Judy started writing songs in the mid-1960s after this very good tip from Leonard Cohen and tonight she sang her very first song “Since You Ask”, which appeared on her landmark album Wildflowers (1967), a name that Judy has been associated with ever since, her own record label being named after the album. Judy’s support for the evening, Kenny White, who did a sterling job getting things off to a good start, is one of the artists signed to the Wildflower label. Although Judy kept the personal traumas of her life to a minimum tonight, I touched upon the one aspect of her social activism that is closest to her heart, that of her tireless campaigning for the prevention of suicide, something she has been involved with since the death of her only son Clark at the age of 33 in 1992 after a long struggle with depression and substance abuse. “When this happened to me I figured I had to do something about it and so I started writing about it. I have actually three books which deal with the question, one of them is called “Singing Lessons” in which I talked about it the first time and then I found a publisher who was willing to do a book about suicide. Sanity and Grace was published by Tarcher and I really felt that I had to talk about it because there wasn’t anything else to do with it. I think suicide survival is one of the more daunting and terrifying emotional experiences to go through. It involves friends, family, survivors and it’s tough. I think that it helped me a lot and I hope that the book helps other people too. Suicide is a strange and very interesting phenomenon if it isn’t happening to you. Teenagers are quite vulnerable to it as well. Last year I helped to support something called A Cry For Help, which was a film that was made after the Virginia Tech murders and there had been some suicide clusters that happened after that and so I am going to be doing some work for them. I don’t think I really know much about prevention but there are certain things that I think are true, mostly that you have to talk about it and get it out into the open and be honest about it”. Still a hard working writer, performer and activist, Judy also has a busy year ahead with a new book about to be published and a new album called Paradise, which is due to be released in June to coincide with her Glastonbury Festival appearance. Tonight Judy previewed one of the songs on the new album, Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust”, which Judy and Joan recently duetted on at the Newport Festival last year. Everyone knows that Joni Mitchell wrote “Both Sides Now”, but no one was in any doubt tonight that Judy Collins performed the definitive version of the song, which closed the set with a rapturous and well deserved applause. As the persistent applause continued long after Judy left the stage, the singer returned this time without her musical director to conclude with an unaccompanied “Amazing Grace”, a fitting end to a lovely night in the company of one of the most charming, beautiful and elegant women I have had the fortune to finally meet.