Judy Collins at Walt Disney Concert Hall

The View From the Back Row:

It Ain’t Over Till the Clown Sings:

February 11, 2012, 8:00pm

By Ross Altman and Jill Fenimore

Judy_CollinsJoan Baez’s voice was a gift of the Gods; and what the Gods give, they can take away; anyone who heard her recent performance on the PBS special, Music of the Civil Rights Movement, could not have been but disappointed at the difference between that version of We Shall Overcome and her recorded version from her second live album, back in 1964. In one an angel is singing; today she sounds like what she is—veteran of a thousand marches for freedom, and like Muhammad Ali, more than one too many championship performances. Regrettably, it sounds like her fabled voice ran into Joe Frazer.

Judy Collins’ voice did not come from the Gods; it came from a childhood of musical training that included piano and voice lessons. And that training has held her in good stead; at Disney Concert Hall she pulled out her old favorites, from Both Sides Now to Send In the Clowns, and one still hears her early warm soprano caressing every note.

The subject of a suite of songs by Stephen Stills, Judy Blue Eyes’ hair may have turned silver, but her vocal command is pure gold. His “Chestnut brown canary/ Ruby throated sparrow” can still “Sing the song,” and “Thrill me to the marrow.”

The highlights were her old favorites: Both Sides Now (the Joni Mitchell song she first introduced and made popular), Amazing Grace, Marat/Sade (which she presented as an “Occupy Wall Street” song about the timeless conflict between rich and poor from the French Revolution: “We want our rights and we don’t care how/We want our revolution now”), Suzanne (with a gracious story about first meeting Leonard Cohen to go with it), the Sandy Denny classic Who Knows Where the Time Goes (written when she was only 25!), the great Scottish whale song Farewell to Tarwaithe (done to perfection with piped in whale songs to which Judy wound up singing in perfect harmony); and the Ian Tyson ballad Someday Soon (the only false note in the concert—betrayed by self-aggrandizing honky tonk piano effects just to show off the estimable skill of her music director and arranger Russell Walden, who otherwise knew how to support her without overwhelming her). To hear the real song listen to Ian and Sylvia, or the Judy Collins who recorded it.

There were also a small but challenging number of new songs from her 2011 album Bohemian that showcased her enduring ability to find new songwriters and give them a platform they never dreamed of having—from her same bully pulpit that launched the careers of Canadian songwriters Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. She has also added a new song from the pen of Jimmy Webb (who gave Glen Campbell the best material he had)—Campo De Encino, a joyous love song to the San Fernando Valley.

Two general observations: Judy Collins is a truly great singer with a truly great soprano voice; as Tom Paxton noted, she has perfect pitch and hits every note dead center—even when she adds a variety of arpeggio effects at the end to stop the tourists in their tracks. She brought the closing of Danny Boy (sung unaccompanied) all the way up to the top of Walt Disney Concert Hall’s dazzlingly high ceiling. Her amazing voice was enough to completely fill the hall—even without her underplayed twelve-string guitar and Russell Walden’s lustrous grand piano.

And as Paxton also pointed out, while Judy Collins is not a prolific songwriter, (indeed her reputation as a great interpreter would be secure had she never written any) when she does write a song she nails it; they are touching, uplifting and memorable. She opened the concert with one of her own, a mid-70s look back on the 1960s’ friends she made in Song for Judith (Open the Door):

Sometimes I remember the old days

When the world was filled with sorrow

You might have thought I was living but I was all alone

In my heart the rain was falling

The wind blew, the night was calling

Come back, come back, I'm all you've ever known

Open the door and come on in I'm so glad to see you, my friend

You're like a rainbow, coming around the bend

And when I see you happy

Well, it sets my heart free I'd like to be as good a friend to you, as you are to me…

Which deftly ends by embracing the entire audience before her:

Open the door and come on in I'm so glad to see you, my friends

You're all like rainbows, coming around the bend

And when I see you happy

Well, it sets my heart free

I'd like to be as good a friend to you, as you are to me

It was a nice touch and put us all in the palm of her hand, where we stayed until the end.

The most moving song of the night for one listener was Judy Collins masterpiece of her own songs—called simply My Father—it is a tribute to failed dreams that tenaciously live on and come true in the lives of one’s children and grandchildren:

My father always promised us

That we would live in France

We'd go boating on the Seine

And I would learn to dance.

We lived in Ohio then

He worked in the mines

On his dreams like boats

We knew we would sail in time.

All my sisters soon were gone

To Denver and Cheyenne

Marrying their grownup dreams

The lilacs and the man.

I stayed behind the youngest still

Only danced alone

The colors of my father's dreams

Faded without a sound.

The sadness of her father’s tragic life is redeemed in his daughter’s song, that keeps his workingman’s dignity intact in the memories she passes on to her children:

And I live in Paris now

My children dance and dream

Hearing the ways of a miner's life

In words they've never seen.

I sail my memories of home

Like boats across the Seine

And watch the Paris sun

As it sets in my father's eyes again.

My father always promised us

That we would live in France

We'd go boating on the Seine

And I would learn to dance.

I sail my memories of home

Like boats across the Seine

And watch the Paris sun

As it sets in my father's eyes again.

As many times as I’ve heard this song, I never understood its power until I saw it in the tear-dimmed eyes of my co-writer, making me realize that Judy Collins brought more than one father alive in her great ode.

It is the song that closes The Judy Collins Songbook, one of only a few songs of hers in the book. It stands tall with other great songs in the book—from much more acclaimed songwriters whose reputations she enhanced with every performance.

What a joy to hear her still able to breathe new life into these old classics at the age of 72, which she didn’t try to hide, letting us all know she was born in 1939 (on May Day!).

My co-writer also came alive when Judy Collins surprised us with a warmhearted performance of a song by her often compared to rival for female folk preeminence—Joan Baez—who it turns out is a life-long friend: Diamonds and Rust, the winsome tale of her early love affair with Bob Dylan. When Judy called Joan out of the blue and told her she wanted her permission to record it, Joan was so pleased she said, “Why don’t we record it together?” And so they did. Judy sang it with such conviction Saturday night it came across as if she might have written it herself; but if she had some similar encounters with Mr. D. along the way she wasn’t saying. (She did allow that her relationship with Leonard Cohen was entirely artistic. Indeed it was he who encouraged her to start writing songs.)

Nonetheless, it was hard to hear Diamonds and Rust with just a rhythm twelve-string background accompaniment and not be reminded of the missing delicate finger-style guitar arrangement that Joan Baez created for the song and that my co-writer adapted with complete authority in her version on her CD Take Two (full disclosure: produced by this writer). It almost made one grateful for every time she set the guitar aside to sing unaccompanied, since it seemed more like a prop—at least in the august environs of Walt Disney Concert Hall. One can hear equally undistinguished accompaniments at any open mic down at the Talking Stick Coffeehouse in Venice.

Forgive me, Judy Collins’ fans (of whom I certainly count myself one) but my peptic ulcer must be acting up; for that is a small bone to pick with a concert that put her glorious soprano voice front and center throughout; we are confident that for the 99% of non-guitarists in the hall, her 12-string strumming was more than adequate. On this score, consider us the much-maligned 1%.

There were also some surprising moments of this music veteran’s post-60s boomer humor: most charming her vignette of watching Ravi Shankar tune his sitar one time, and commenting, “How could you tell he was tuning? It just seemed like another raga to me.”

When she first encountered a young scruffy-haired folk singer at Gerdes Folk City in Greenwich Village she recalled her vivid first impressions with invidious comparisons to some of the better coifed musicians she had met earlier: “His jeans were torn, his jacket ripped, and he should lose the Huck Finn cap—it was Bob Dylan, of course.”

The old joke and best line of the night was stolen (un-attributed) from Wavy Gravy: “If you remember the 60s, you weren’t there.” Of course, Judy Collins was there, and has put all of her inside-the-folkway memories into a new memoir, brightly named after Stephen Still’s classic song for her: Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, just slightly recasting his own title: “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” To Stills she dedicated Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

As this Judy Collins’ fan well knew, her concert ain’t over till the clown sings; and she saved (for me, at least) the best for last: Stephen Sondheim’s Send In the Clowns. And after an evening in which she demonstrated why her voice has enchanted and dazzled audiences for the past half century, she let the song’s masterful simplicity speak for itself. Originally written, as Sondheim has said, for a singer with a very limited vocal range, and thus deliberately restrained in its musical vocabulary, Judy Collins did not try to maximize its effects, but wisely preferred to let the song end with a dying fall, its final note descending from the penultimate note before it. A lesser singer would have turned her ending on its head, and tried to soar for an undeserved effort to accentuate the positive. But Judy Collins knew precisely where the song’s undiminished power lay: in the broken heart at its core. The ending—and the concert’s enduring memory—was in that philosophic acceptance of the limits of love. To my co-writer, exhaled in one moving breath, it was “just perfect.”

But of course the audience insisted on an encore; and this show-business veteran did not disappoint them: After a standing ovation the singer who described herself as “the American Idol of 1957” (and her music director Russell Walden) came out and blew kisses to the house. What would she sing, we wondered? Well, she left her own classic songbook for another time, and reached way back to the Oscar-winning song from the year she was born, 1939, and the singer she confided in us she was name after—Judy Garland—to sing one for the ages; Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s Over the Rainbow.

So I’ll leave you with a story she might tell later on: When Harold Arlen gave Yip Harburg the music for the song that would come to define the movie, he needed the lyrics quickly for they were scheduled to start shooting the very next day. Yip (E.Y.) Harburg stayed up all night long and returned the following morning with the completed lyric. Arlen put it on the piano and started ruefully singing up to the title, at which point he turned to his lyricist and said, “But Yip, there is no rainbow in the Wizard of Oz!” Nonplussed, Harburg gazed back at the composer and replied, “There is now.”

Judy Collins is a great performer, a magical singer, and an enduring artist who has leant her extraordinary vocal gifts to a wide range of music—not the just folk music that early on tempted her away from her planned career as a concert pianist (and to whom her disappointed childhood piano teacher said after her Carnegie Hall debut concert: “Little Judy, you could really have gone places!”). She has filled the stage, concert halls and recordings with definitive performances of Broadway show tunes, French chansons by Jacques Brel, hymns, art songs, folk anthems, and yes, her own treasured songs as well.

Walt Disney Concert Hall was honored by her presence.

The view from the back row, looking down at the stage from high atop the east terrace, could not have been better. Judy Collins, looking both regal and Bohemian in a simple black pant suit, even from a distance, was a sight for sore eyes.

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com Jill Fenimore may be reached at LALocalCelebrity@aol.com

Ross Altman will perform with Angeline Butler (an original member of the Nashville Student Sit-Ins that led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960) on Thursday evening February 16 from 6:00 to 7:00pm at the La Pintoresca Branch of the Pasadena Public Library at 1355 North Raymond Ave, Pasadena, CA 91104. This Black History Month event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement is free and open to the public; no reservations required.

The following week, Ross Altman and Jill Fenimore will perform together at The UnUrban Coffeehouse, 3301 Pico Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90405, as a part of Andy’s Living Room series on Tuesday evening, February 21, 2012 at 8:00pm. It is free and open to the public; no reservations required.

On Saturday, April 21, 2:00pm. to help celebrate the Woody Guthrie Centennial, Ross will perform his one-man show The Ballad of Tom Joad: Woody Guthrie and The Grapes of Wrath at the Institute for Musical Arts, 3210 W. 54th St., LA, CA 90043. $15. For info and tickets call 323-300-6578 ; or info@imalosangeles.