sat 15/06/2024

Judy Collins, Grand Central Hall, Liverpool review - how sweet the sound, even at 80 | reviews, news & interviews

Judy Collins, Grand Central Hall, Liverpool review - how sweet the sound, even at 80

Judy Collins, Grand Central Hall, Liverpool review - how sweet the sound, even at 80

A consummate musician takes a trip down the foggy ruins of time

Judy Collins: who knows where the time goes?

It’s a good few years since Judy Collins last toured Britain and Ireland, though in the US she’s rarely off the road. Over the last couple of years she has notched up more than 100 concerts (and an album) with Stephen Stills, who famously celebrated their 1960s love affair in the magnificent “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”.

Her latest album, Winter Stories, with Jonas Field and Chatham County Line, had American critics reaching for superlatives and put her in the charts once more.

Her eyes are still as blue and even up close you’d never guess she celebrated her 80th birthday last May Day. The pink sequinned jacket her old friend Joan Baez bought her to mark the occasion sparkled at the Grand Central Hall concert which opened the tour. “You’re looking at Miss American Idol 1957,” Collins quipped, after the opening number, “Chelsea Morning”, which inspired the naming of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s daughter. The song was of course written by Joni Mitchell, whose work Collins was the first to record – “Both Sides Now”, which brought the talented but tricksy Canadian singer-songwriter to public attention, featured later in a programme that drew from across Collins’ remarkable 60-year career.

Collins was always going to be a musician but her parents and teacher had in mind a career as a concert pianist – she made her debut playing a Mozart piano concerto aged just 13. But “the great folk scare” as the left-leaning 1950s folk revival was often called got in the way, young Judy first encountering songs such as “Barbara Allen” sung by Jo Stafford on the radio. It was the guy at her local record store in downtown Denver who made her aware of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Weavers et al, and Lingo the Drifter, a friend of her singer and radio host father, who shaped her early repertoire. By the time she arrived in Greenwich Village in 1961 she was a seasoned performer.

And what stories and anecdotes she has to tell! Collins has known them all – knew Bob Dylan when he was out west as plain Robert Zimmerman, a chubby Guthrie wannabe with no obvious future. Then he hitchhiked to the Village and started writing his own songs. In the mid-sixties, her reputation well established, a friend told Collins about this obscure, award-winning, impecunious Canadian poet who might or might not be a songwriter. “When I opened my door to him, I thought I don’t care if he can write songs – we’ll figure something out!” It was of course Leonard Cohen, whose songs she also debuted. She persuaded him to sing, he persuaded her to write.

I doubt Taylor Swift and her contemporaries will have 60 years of staying power

"Suzanne”, among the first of many Cohen songs Collins would record, was given a sublime performance in Liverpool, the song reimagined for the piano and Judy opening the second half of the concert at the keyboard. Her classical training shows in the fluid passage-work and imaginative textures and sonorities employed. If Franz Schubert were alive now and living in the Rocky Mountains, “The Blizzard” is what he’d write – a long narrative song of romantic escape, Wintereisse relocated to Colorado. You can hear the snow falling and the icicles forming in Collins’s evocative piano writing, the song finally resolving in a major key as the storm subsides and the sun comes up.

For most of the concert, the piano stool was occupied by long-time accompanist and music director Russell Walden, Collins standing centre-stage with her 12-string Martin D35 which she plays with subtle delicacy, often chording high up the fingerboard and strumming towards the neck, which makes for a warm sound. Among the songs plucked from her vast repertoire were “John Riley”, “Masters of War”, “Norwegian Wood” (in honour of Liverpool and its game-changing musicians) and “Mr Tambourine Man”, which Collins heard taking shape in the wee small hours during a boozy Woodstock weekend with Dylan and his then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo at Albert Grossman's home. The audience needed no encouragement to sing along.

Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”, a transatlantic hit for her in 1975, concluded the concert, a pitch-perfect performance that bettered the original, laid down at a difficult time for Collins, vocally and emotionally. Surgery and sobriety restored both her health and her voice, which retains a remarkable range and lustre and the ability to sustain high notes. The encore, of course, was “Amazing Grace”, the audience singing the melody and Collins the harmony, with Walden (who provided vocal harmonies throughout) adding an almost imperceptible pianissimo drone effect.

The adoring fans who cheered her to the echo would have had her sing for another two hours. Collins offered an evening of consummate musicianship combined with witty anecdotage. One felt in the company of an old friend. I doubt Taylor Swift and her contemporaries will have 60 years of staying power. If you haven't booked a ticket, do so now. The chance may not come again.

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