Live Review: Judy Collins @ Melbourne Recital Centre

13 March 2024 | 2:03 pm | Guido Farnell

“There can be no doubt that Collins’ playground is the great American songbook.”

Judy Collins

Judy Collins (Supplied)

More Judy Collins More Judy Collins

Judy Collins took to the stage this evening clutching a guitar with a wild sparkle in her eyes. Happy to be here? “At this point, I’m just happy to be anywhere,” said Collins with a sly smile referring to her vintage. The crowd giggled in anticipation. Oddly, dedicating her first song to King Charles III and his queen – “formerly his girlfriend,” she notes with a laugh – Collins launched into a fine cover of Norwegian Wood. She strummed her guitar and was accompanied by a pianist. Together they creates an elegant musical context for Collin’s vocals which flutter effortlessly across the room.

Placing special emphasis on her age, Collins told us that she is the American Idol of 1956. While it’s amusing to many in the audience, it is quite an achievement that Collins has been doing the whole singer-songwriter thing for over sixty years. Amazingly at 84 she still tours aggressively. Truly great musicians only get better with time and the iconic Collins is no exception. Despite the occasional misstep, Collins’ vocals sound as beautiful as she does many of the tracks she has recorded over the years.

She remains as prolific as ever. She talks ups a forthcoming anthology of poetry she wrote in 2016, in which she challenged herself to write a poem everyday for a year with the idea that these poems would become source material for songs.

Tonight’s setlist recalls the glory of her past but it is also an opportunity to showcase tunes from 2022’s Spellbound. “You can get the from the cloud, or would you buy it from Amazon? Do ya’ll hate Amazon?” she asks but then concedes that “it’s convenient if you want to buy something”. Both Sides Now features early in the set. We have heard many an aspiring signer warble their way through this song, but listening closely to Collins breathy melancholy vocals practically executed to perfection confirms we are in the company of a true master, in complete control of her craft, at work.

Collins talks her way through the show. Reminiscing about the past, she regales us with stories and memories. “I didn’t take many drugs back then,” she laughed. “I was worried that it would get in the way of drinking.” Although sober now, Collins tells us this because she was passed out on her sofa when she got a call from a friend who introduced her to Joni Mitchell, who has just written Both Sides Now. Collins reveals this is how she got to record and release the song before Mitchell.

Each of these songs evokes memories and Collins in a very stream of conscious kind of way meandered her way through the stories that connect these tunes. She moved beyond providing amusing patter between songs to connect with the audience. At times she reeled off names as though we knew them. Perhaps we should. She honoured her father who was a musician and a radio celebrity. In retrospect My Father is a sweet yearning dream of her childhood. Although squarely rooted in folk and Americana, Collins transcends her influences to produce an elegantly eloquent sound that drips with emotion and lived experience that resonates with her fans.

Join our community with our FREE weekly newsletter

Collins also talked about her starter husband and a then her two-year romance with Stephen Stills. Collins revealed Stills wrote Helplessly Hoping about her and launched into a sweet version of the song.

“Dylan!”, I knew him before the name change. “Who was he? Robert someone?” The crowd called out Zimmerman. “That’s right”, she said before telling us that way back when she knew him he covered the worst Woody Guthrie songs, had poor taste in clothes and was possibly homeless at the time. Collins didn’t stop there, telling us that her record company called to tell her that they had an early demo but were disappointed as they thought he didn’t know how to sing.

The crowd giggled but Collins acknowledged renewed respect for Dylan when she saw his lyrics published in the illustrious folk magazine SingOut! Collins spontaneously burst out into Mr Tambourine Man and asked the crowd to sing along. Collins often sang a line or two to illustrate songs she was talking about. Amusingly she sang a line of Danny Boy and then decided to play the whole song and insist the crowd sing along.

Collins is a workaholic. She acknowledged being sick and diagnosed with tuberculosis after her Carnegie Hall debut. “I was young and had important work to do” but they kept her in the hospital for months. It’s this fierce compulsion to create that has yielded the refined gentle beauty of recent tunes like When I Was A Girl In Colorado, The Blizzard and Mountain Girl that showcase a powerhouse of a singer-songwriter.

Collins sarcastically laughs that Rod Stewart now owns the great American songbook. Once she’s done delivering the heartache of Send In The Clowns and her acclaimed but sobering version Amazing Grace, there can be no doubt that Collins’ playground is the great American songbook. It’s when she leaves the stage that we notice that Collins has been teetering on vertiginous looking heels the whole time.