The first surprise of the evening was the size of the audience. Having seen a number of excellent folk artists singing to less than capacity crowds over the last few years, it was good to see that Judy Collins had sold out the ground floor of the Birmingham Town Hall and a substantial part of the balcony. The second surprise was the voice. Collins is now 70, and has been singing in public since the early 1950s. Her voice is virtually the same as it was in the 1960s — a clear haunting soprano. Amazingly, she still has her upper register and once she had warmed up with the first couple of songs, she seemingly effortlessly reached the heights. The show was more than a straightforward concert; rather it was a blend of reminiscences, storytelling and songs, sometimes sung in their entirety, sometimes just a fragment to illustrate a point in the story.
Dressed in black with glitter, shoulder-length white hair tumbling down, and playing her trademark 12-string Martin guitar, Judy started the evening with two of her best-known songs from the past, ‘Both Sides Now’ and the Ian Tyson song, ‘Someday Soon’, both well-received by the audience. Then she moved into an impressive a cappella rendition of the traditional Irish song, ‘The Kerry Dancers’ – ‘Oh, the songs of the Kerry dancers, oh, the ring of the piper’s tune, oh, for one of those hours of gladness, gone, alas, like our youth, too soon!’ finishing with a show-off prolonged high note which, she joked, she could only achieve because of all the hours she spent on her treadmill!
The reminiscing covered most of her life, starting with the musical influences of her father, a 1950s American radio presenter, whose tastes ran to torch songs and ballads, some of which she then sang. Judy started her musical training with classical piano, performing Mozart’s ‘Concerto for Two Pianos’ in public at the age of 13, but (assuming that her version of the story can be believed) it was Jo Stafford’s version of ‘Barbara Allen’ that moved her away from the classics and but towards folk music. Her repertoire has always included both traditional folk and modern singer-songwriter numbers – my own sense is that it’s the storytelling element and the lyrics that determine her choice of material. Many of the songs during the evening were accompanied on the piano by Russell Walden, her musical director.
Fairly early on in the evening she said to the audience, ‘I bet you’re an audience that can sing’ and launched into the Woody Guthrie number ‘This Land is Your Land’. Having seen lots of very experienced performers come unstuck when trying to get Birmingham Town Hall audiences to sing, my jaw dropped as the entire room burst into song. She got people singing along at a number of points during the evening, the only failure being Steve Goodman’s ‘City of New Orleans’, a song I suspect that’s better known in the States than in Birmingham.
On the one hand, the evening could be described as a history of Judy Collins coupled with a history of folk and popular music through the last fifty years. Another way to describe it would be as a showcase of fine songwriting.
As the evening progressed, I was struck by how consistently good the songs that she had chosen to perform were — and at the range and quality of the songwriters whose work she sang, always giving credit. From Steve Goodman to the latest Jimmy Webb song, via Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Lennon and McCartney, we were treated to a feast of good songs. Nor were newer and younger songwriters neglected — Amy Speace’s song ‘The Weight of the World’ about the death of a brother sent to fight in the Middle East was powerful and moving. The set ended with ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, ‘Send In the Clowns’ and then, for the final encore, an a capella version of ‘Amazing Grace’.
Judy was ably supported by Kenny White, a witty if bitter New Yorker with a strong voice and capable piano playing. His songs tended towards the deeply depressed and depressing but were well-written and delivered confidently. The audience responded enthusiastically. Highlights of his set included a moving song written to his mother who is gradually losing her memory which was a rather more tender piece than most of his material, and ‘Repeat the Line’, a bitchy and very funny song targeting the pop industry.
Judy Collins (note – some of these were sung in their entirety, others as fragments):
Both Sides Now, Someday Soon, The Kerry Dancers, Who Knows Where or When, This Land is Your Land, Dear Hearts and Gentle People, Barbara Allen, I Once Was a Union Maid, Deportees, Some Enchanted Evening, Goodnight Irene, Michael Row the Boat Ashore, Scarlet Ribbons, Day-O (The Banana Boat Song), Anathea, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, Masters of War, Bottle of Wine, Thirsty Boots, Since You Asked, Open the Door, The Weight of the World, Blackbird, City of New, Orleans, The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress, Paul Gauguin in the South Seas, Albatross, The Blizzard (The Colorado Song), Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Send In the Clowns, Amazing Grace
I’ve Been Down but Never Like This, I Don’t Know Where You Are Tonight, Call Me When You’re On Your Way, You’re Already Gone, You Might As Well Leave, Repeat the Line, My Recurring Dream
Review Betty Hagglund
Photos John Bentley