Sooner or later, time gets its hooks into us all, and we are not what we were.
And so I entered Saturday’s concert by Judy Collins– who “opened” for Don McLean at Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center–with some anxiety.
Would the “ruby throated sparrow” immortalized by Stephen Stills so many years ago still have the magic voice? At age 74, is that even possible?
Other performers can get by with strong songs and a good band when their pipes aren’t 100 percent. Don McLean did just that; the 68-year-old singer-songwriter gave an entertaining set while reaching for his cough drops.
Judy Collins is a classically trained pianist, with wonderful songs and funny stories about the “pathetic” young Bob Dylan and other legends from her early days at Gerdes Folk City. But you go to her concerts for one reason: That stunning soprano that seduces your soul.
At the height of its power, this beautiful instrument could summon tears, despite your best efforts to remain stoic.
Thank goodness my trepidation did not win out.
Although she is not the Judy Collins of Wildflowers or Times of Our Lives, she still can trigger the waterworks. With a little help from modern reverb technology, which gave her a lustrous sheen, Judy warmed up after a touch-and-go Chelsea Morning to deliver almost 90 minutes of bliss.
For most of the evening she accompanied herself on a 12-string guitar while Russell Walden provided nimble backing on piano and harmonies.
Judy dipped into the Great American Songbook (“now the Rod Stewart Songbook”) for bits and pieces of Over the Rainbow and My Funny Valentine, and covered Jo Stafford’s Barbara Allen and Jimmy Webb’s Campo de Encino, a verse or two of Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, and How Are Things in Glocca Morra? from Finian’s Rainbow. She ended with her biggest hit, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, which brought the sold-out house to its feet.
In between, Judy sang some of her best-loved songs: Born to the Breed, the haunting My Father, the ever-catchy Someday Soon, and a wistful Grandaddy, hinting of a coming PBS special about Judy’s travels in Ireland.
She sat down at the piano for Colorado, a majestic ballad enhanced by a little more technology, enabling her to harmonize with herself as the song swirled into the clouds.
One of Judy’s favorite stories recounts a post-concert visit at Carnegie Hall from her childhood piano teacher, the “ferocious” conductor Antonia Brico.
“Little Judy,” the instructor sighed. “You really could have gone places.”
Quite a few people appeared pleased that Judy’s journey led her to Morristown.
And then there was the main attraction, Don McLean.
Pity anyone having to follow Judy Collins when she is on her game. Don was equal to the challenge, however, thanks to a superb four-piece Nashville band (Tony Migliore, David Smith, Jerry Kroon, Vip Vipperman) and an eclectic set list that served notice that there is more to this songwriter than American Pie.
Vincent, And I Love You So and Castles in the Air are standards, for good reason. But Don also dusted off some less-familiar gems, like the funky, moody If I Hadn’t Met You from the PBS documentary American Troubadour, the upbeat Love In My Heart, and a pair of infectious pop tunes, Fashion Victim and Jerusalem.
Covers included Buddy Holly’s Well…All Right, Don Williams’ foot-stomping Tulsa Time and Roy Orbison’s Crying, which was a hit for Don McLean.
The show ended with… what else? A sing-along on American Pie, a tune that ranked fifth on a survey of America’s top songs of the 20th century. More than four decades after it topped the charts, many of the pop references still escape me. Give me four more decades, though, and I will crack the code.