Judy Collins at Café Carlyle
The legendary singer-songwriter returns to the Upper East Side supper club.
Judy Collins was born into a musical life. Her father was a radio DJ and host of the KOA radio program Chuck Collins Calling. By age 13, she was already wowing audiences with her skills as a classical pianist. Now 76, she's still thrilling us, but with slightly more contemporary music. With over half a century of experience under her belt, Collins knows how to put on a show and enchant us with her heavenly voice.
This involves a seamless mix of lyrically challenging music and Collins' own brand of witty audience banter. She tells stories from the '60s, mentioning legendary musicians like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez as if they were old friends (because to her, they are). "I put him through school," she reflects on 42-year-old singer-songwriter Adam Cohen (son of Leonard). And considering what a champion she has been of his father's work, few could dispute her on that point. Judy Collins is like your grandmother, if she could sing and were actually honest about her sexual exploits.
Acoustic guitar in hand, she naturally opens the show with "Open the Door (Song for Judith)," her most up-tempo number of the evening. We immediately recognize her clear and featherlight voice wafting over the dining room of Café Carlyle. Then she hits us with her timeless cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," an emotional beginning to a heartfelt night.
Her rendition of Jacques Brel's "Sons Of" is simultaneously articulate and gentle, as is her medley of Stephen Sondheim's "No One Is Alone" and "Being Alive." Collins has a remarkable capacity for difficult lyrics, interpreting them with a simple grace. "It's all the ginko and crossword puzzles," she explains, shrugging off her incredible memory.
Few people have the ability to sing so softly and yet with such an assertive force. One expects a certain amount of bite in songs like "Diamonds and Rust," Joan Baez's immortalization of her failed romance with Bob Dylan. Lyrics like these beg for it:
Now you're telling me
You're not nostalgic
Then give me another word for it
You who are so good with words
And at keeping things vague.
Instead, Collins delivers these caustic lyrics with a sweet, almost matronly approach, exhibiting the unshakable inner serenity of a lifetime victor. It certainly works for her, but one still feels hungry for that absent acidity.
While the subject is often heavy, the delivery remains lighthearted, conveyed through just Collins, her guitar, and her music director. Playing the piano like a gentle rain upon the stage, Russell Walden effortlessly accompanies Collins for all but a brief passage in which she takes over the ivories. This is when she discusses the time she was diagnosed with tuberculosis while performing an engagement in Tucson. The subsequent song, "Arizona" (composed by Collins), is dreamy and lyrical, lulling us into a trance as she sings us back in time.
Other times it feels like Collins is taking us to church, leading us in a sing-along of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and John Newton's "Amazing Grace." The audience, putty in her hands, gladly obliges.
It should be noted that Collins is a huge fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, mentioning her excitement about the Broadway-bound musical several times throughout the evening. One looks forward to her rapping a number or two during her next Café Carlyle engagement. It certainly wouldn't be unexpected for an artist as versatile and daring as Collins.