Judy Collins at Charleston Music Hall
CHARLESTON MUSIC HALL is a wonderful venue for virtually any production, but seems particularly well-suited to the likes of Judy Collins who performed there live in concert on Tuesday evening.
The sold-out crowd comprised plenty of folks of the same vintage as Collins, but also a few of those in the younger—in some cases, much younger—set. Not a one of us could, or did, restrain ourselves from gasping, whoo-whooing, applauding madly—and singing along.
A generous, uninterrupted 90-plus minute concert left no doubt that this iconic singer’s style, charm and still-incredible vocal range are alive and well, perhaps even better than when we fell in love with her way, way back in the day.
With the house still dark, that honeyed voice came unaccompanied, seducing us with song. “I’ll be Home for Christmas” brought a round of clapping rippling across the audience before the fourth word. A hush fell, as we did not want to miss a single note. She had us.
Sashaying onto the brilliantly-lit stage in a sparkling top and jacket over skinny jeans and boots, all in black, strode the lady who has garnered fan worship for the past 56 years, following in her family’s footsteps at a very young age; of course, all of us were toddlers then, too. Her attractive, accomplished Musical Director Russell Walden hit the piano bench at the same moment that Collins, playing the hell out of her signature 12-string guitar, broke into the upbeat “Chelsea Morning.”
Then she spoke to us, saying how thrilled she was to be here. “These days, I’m thrilled to be almost anywhere,” she quipped. Her appearance here, originally scheduled for October during The Thousand-Year Flood, had to be postponed; almost everyone in the audience confirmed they had had tickets for the fall date, thus increasing our already eager anticipation. Later, Collins expressed her sympathy for the Mother Emmanuel Nine tragedy.
Indeed, it was just such remarks, her asides, anecdotes, stories of her thoroughly Irish family, putting songs into historical contexts, quoting everyone from Dolly Parton to Dorothy Parker, that made us fall in love all over again, with the woman as well as her music. Here was the real, authentic, funny, charming, gracious star, if anything guileless, self-deprecating with nary a hint of vanity.
This concert, then, became even more than our favorite renditions of her hundreds of hits. “I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane” morphed into John Denver’s “Country Roads” which she invited us to join in, back to the number that was such a huge hit for Peter, Paul & Mary. (No matter who originated which version, or when, Collins makes every song her own—and always has.)
A bang-up “Barbara Allen” and “John Riley” she sang full throttle, hitting notes in the coloratura range with as much ease as she belted out “chest” tones. She accompanied herself on guitar, with the piano coming in for a fuller sound and harmony. Walden also occasionally contributed a fine tenor, especially effective in “Silver Bells.”
A classically-trained musician, Collins made us grateful she abandoned Mozart and Verdi for Willie Nelson and Jimmy Buffett, as well as composers of musical theater, and across virtually every musical genre. She had a good introduction, through her father who had his own radio show, hosting guests such as Bob Hope and Red Skelton, and who sang to her, from Rodgers & Hart tunes to Irish ballads. She joined the Denver Folklore Society in 1954.
The two songs I most associate with Collins are “Clouds” and “Send in the Clowns.” She offered both, to my delight, again providing the context, how she was introduced to each. Of several signature Sondheim tunes, particularly effective was her interpretation of the best-known song from “Sunday in the Park with George,” accompanying herself on piano, which she played expertly—after she offered the story of the prodigiously talented Toast of Broadway, whom she met in 1973.
Now that her appearance here was a holiday concert, she gave us the gifts of “Good King Wescenlaus” and “What Child Is This?” as well as “The Cheery Tree Carol.”
What brought down the house was “Amazing Grace,” describing how John Newsome, a former slave trade captain, came to write it. When Collins encouraged our participation, many of us were singing through tears.
The story of her family (“Dysfunctional is every family that has more than one member”) and her personal and musical history provided a well-conceived theme so that everything she sang, from blues to show tunes, Christmas carols to folk songs, were a natural part of a carefully woven whole.
What a transformative experience, to idolize a performer for much of a lifetime—and far from being disappointed, witness her live up to and far beyond your impossible expectations.