"Who Knows Where the Time Goes," Judy Collins sang in the middle of the opening night of her eagerly-awaited September stint at the Cafe Carlyle and if you closed your eyes, five decades instantly melted away. Even if her soprano isn't 1000 percent as crystalline clear as it once was – and it's damn close – Collins has the rare ability to transport audiences back in time with just a note, or even a laugh.
Then again, few performers seem as truly comfortable on stage, or can make an audience feel as comfortable, as Collins does. Nor can many get away with her anything-might-happen approach. She frequently interrupts a train of thought to embrace a tangent, tell an amusing anecdote, or deliver just a sampling of a beloved tune (such as Leonard Cohen's classic "Suzanne") -- and always has you listening. The stories may be familiar to longtime Collins fans (or readers of her recent memoir), yet they somehow seem fresh.
That's doubly true of the songs, whether you've heard them once or a million times. Such megahits as "Both Sides Now" (written by the great Joni Mitchell), "Send in the Clowns" (by Stephen Sondheim), "Helplessly Hoping" (written by ex-lover Stephen Stills), and her own glorious compositions, "Someday Soon," "Since You Asked," and "My Father," are all delivered with the kind of heartfelt emotion that make it almost impossible to believe that Collins has sung these tunes hundreds of times.
At times, the mood was joyfully light -- especially when Collins turned parts of Jimmy Webb's "Campo de Encino" into a singalong or told a slightly bizarre joke about a 60-something woman who just had a baby.
Still, the evening had its share of wrenching moments, most notably a stirring beautiful a cappella rendition of "Danny Boy" and "Kingdom Come-The Fireman Song," her memorable paean to the heroes of 9/11, performed most fittingly on the 11th anniversary of that fateful day.
Finding the perfect encore for her 90-minute set, Collins chose John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "In My Life." Indeed, a lot has changed since Judy Collins first thrilled audiences – some forever, not for better – but her ability to spread love throughout a room remains a wonder to behold.