As a kid, I loved listening to and playing all sorts of music, so when I became a teenager, I was excited to be able to choose my first-ever live concert performance. At the time — the early 1970s — the folk-rock movement had established itself as a significant stream of popular music. As such, records by Carole King, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell were among those in heavy rotation on my Westinghouse portable record player.
Interestingly enough, however, I didn’t choose any of those artists for the first concert I would ever pick for myself. Instead, at the age of 14, I decided to pick Judy Collins.
For me, it wasn’t only her voice, her presence, nor the strength of her appealing single, “Both Sides, Now” that were the major draws. Rather, it was probably because a local teen organization was sponsoring a bus trip to Holmdel, NJ’s Garden State Arts Center to see Judy Collins which — at the tender age of 14 — my mom would allow me to attend on my own!
I didn’t even know anyone else on the trip — and I didn’t care! I just wanted to hear Judy Collins sing “Both Sides, Now.”
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I can still remember sitting on the lawn of that outdoor amphitheater that gorgeous summer evening listening to Judy Collins effortlessly sing that song, the moment etched in memory as though it happened just yesterday.
In high school, I continued to enjoy folk rock music, becoming more and more immersed in learning how to sing and play songs by groups like Crosby, Stills and Nash on my Kent 12-string guitar and Fender Rhodes electric piano. A number of years later, I even went to see Crosby, Stills and Nash at Camden, NJ’s Tweeter Center where I got to experience first-hand their world-class vocal harmonies on such groundbreaking songs as “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” — not to mention the expertise of their killer lead guitarist — former Buffalo Springfield member, Stephen Stills.
Flash forward to June 24, 2018 where I’m inside Englewood, NJ’s gem of a theater — The Bergen Performing Arts Center — where my writing partner and I are getting ready for a sold-out concert by Stephen Stills and Judy Collins.
We notice the crowd here contains more than a few baby boomers, but also features music lovers of a variety of ages.
For instance, in the front of the auditorium, we meet Morgan, 21, from Boyertown, PA, who surprised her mom with her greatest Mother’s Day present ever — first row seats to tonight’s concert!
Clutching a Sharpie marker and Stephen Stills’ self-titled 1975 LP in hopes of getting it signed, Morgan explains why she drove two hours and spent money she had conscientiously saved so she could be here with her mom tonight.
“I’ve always loved Stephen Stills’ music,” she reveals. “It really speaks to a time when music had meaning — when music was simple. I’ll never forget hearing Crosby, Stills and Nash on the car radio at 13,” before noting, “These guys may not be touring too much longer — so it’s really special to be up this close to hear Stephen Stills live.”
A love of folk-rock music runs in Morgan’s family. Her mother, Elizabeth, had Judy Collins’ song, “Since You’ve Asked,” played at her own wedding and, on her first anniversary, was surprised by her husband with tickets to a Judy Collins concert.
When asked why she’s such a fan, Elizabeth replies, “I grew up with Judy Collins’ music — her voice is like an angel.”
Next, we meet John and Joan from Ridgewood, frequent concertgoers who reveal they enjoy giving each other concert tickets as gifts.
A Christmas present to her husband, Joan says they are here for tonight’s show because, as she explains — while pointing directly at John — “He’s had a crush on Judy Collins for 50 years — since high school!”
When we ask John why he likes Judy Collins so much, he states, “It’s mostly the music — everything she does is beautiful — she has a unique, pure sound,” before noting with a smile, “but she is an attractive woman.”
Adds Joan, “Our town, Ridgewood NJ, is in love with Stephen Sondheim, but Judy Collins was the first to make his music understandable to most people,” thanks, in large part, to her rendition of Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.”
Although the couple has seen Collins perform several times, they’re also fans of Stephen Stills — “all the way back to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young,” states John — before Joan laughs and reveals, “And I’ll never forget when The Muppets did his song, ‘For What It’s Worth,’ on The Muppet Show! They did it as an anti-hunting anthem sung by little forest animals and it was adorable!”
Lastly, we happen to catch up with a folk music celebrity here in the house this evening — singer/songwriter Tom Chapin — who reveals, “I’m here to see Judy tonight,” before telling us the story of how the two met.
“I was coming home from the West Coast and my flight was delayed in Phoenix,” explains Chapin, “and it turns out that Judy was coming back from Reno, and her flight was delayed, too. We hung out at the airport for eight hours just singing and playing songs together. After that, I asked her to be a part of my album, Family Tree. She agreed, and she ended up performing on three of my songs.”
Noting his connection to Stephen Stills, Chapin recalls, “I also toured with Stephen Stills and America as their opening act,” before adding, “so I’m really looking forward to seeing both of them again tonight.”
Soon, the BergenPAC auditorium lights dim and the audience gets ready for tonight’s opening act, especially selected by Judy Collins and Stephen Stills — Kenny White.
White — a NYC-based singer/songwriter, producer, and studio musician— produced Shawn Colvin’s Grammy-nominated “I Don’t Know Why” and also worked with Marc Cohn on his self-titled platinum debut recording.
In his pork pie hat and skinny black tie, White greets the audience stating, “I know what you’re thinking — ‘Who is this guy?’ — before earning cheers from this Jersey crowd upon revealing, “I’m from Fort Lee.”
Performing a masterful set of originals including “Never Like This,” on which he plays electronic piano, and “Who’s Gonna Be the One,” on which he plays guitar, White’s bourbon-tinged vocals carry his intelligent, poetic, and often humorous lyrics.
For instance, in his song about the internet, “Cyberspace,” White sings, “I learned that Amelia Earhart may, in fact, still be alive/And that killer bees in Sicily are learning how to drive,” before lamenting on the song’s chorus, “I spent the day in cyberspace/Contagious insanity/As goes the human touch/So goes humanity.”
When the crowd demonstrates how much they enjoy his music, White reacts by stating, “All I know is I love being back in Bergen County,” before performing his lovely, “The Other Shore.” Singing like he’s praying, “There’s a time, early evening/The city shows its mercy/Lines are cast through the river glass/As the sun sinks into Jersey,” White performs with emotion on this finely-crafted composition.
After announcing, “This one is for all the songwriters in the house,” White concludes his set — literally on a high note — with his clever and humorous, “You Gotta Sing High.” Explaining what it takes these days to have a hit record, White deftly uses his falsetto voice while crooning, “You gotta sing high/Then even higher/Gotta look sensitive/Mess up your hair/But not like you meant to/Sing things like ‘You’re beautiful’/And then repeat the line/And then repeat the line/Repeat the line.”
Following avid applause, during intermission, we get an opportunity to chat with White in the BergenPAC lobby where he tells us that, in addition to being a singer/songwriter, he’s also known as an arranger and producer of advertising jingles. While creating jingles for products like “milk, Chevrolet, Diet Coke, and more,” White had the pleasure of working with such well-known recording artists as Gladys Knight, Felix Cavaliere, Aaron Neville, and Linda Ronstadt.
White also discloses that, “as a record producer, I did the last four albums of Peter Wolf” — the former J. Geils Band leader — but he now concentrates on producing his own albums, notably his latest project, Long List of Priors.
The lights dim and we return to the BergenPAC auditorium where Stephen Stills and Judy Collins and their backup band — Russell Walden on keyboards, Kevin McCormick on bass, and Tony Beard on drums — are all making their way onto the stage.
Standing ten feet apart, Stills, in his sport jacket, and Collins, in her flowing dress, open with their rendition of The Traveling Willbury’s “Handle With Care.”
Supported by Russell Walden’s swirling Hammond organ and a solid Tony Beard backbeat, Stills and Collins find their voices as they harmonize to the willing crowd, “I’ve been beat up and I’ve been battered ‘round/I’ve been sent up and I’ve been shot down/You’re the best thing I’ve ever found/Handle me with care.”
After greeting the audience, Stills exclaims, “I’m surprised we’re doing this song,” as the pair launches into the Crosby, Stills and Nash favorite, “You Don’t Have to Cry.” His voice sounding huskier and more mature than in his CSN days — yet still iconic Stephen Stills — once he reaches the “I said cry my baby/You don’t have to cry” chorus, his voice blends and soars along with Collins’, earning appreciative applause from this sold-out crowd.
Collins addresses the audience revealing, “Stephen and I have known each other for 50 years. Funny how time goes by,” before performing a new composition, “River of Gold.” On this number, Collins sounds like an angel as she sings about the seasons coming and going in the old days, accompanied by majestic piano playing by Russell Walden and a thoughtful Stephen Stills guitar solo.
Up next is Stills’ and Collins’ rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s “Questions.” As Collins strums her 12-string, Stills plays a rhythmic distorted guitar solo on this appealing folk-rocker which features Russell Walden on organ, not to mention solid rhythm section playing from Kevin McCormick on bass and Tony Beard on drums.
Following avid applause, Stills tells the crowd about the message of the duo’s next song, “Virtual World,” stating, “People in front of you are more important” than electronic devices, singing, “And I don’t know what you’ve been thinking/What are you trying to say/But the world is full of clutter/And it’s in the way,” before warning, “Don’t get lost in a virtual world.”
Collins tells a story about songwriter Leonard Cohen revealing, “I had a long and wonderful relationship with him,” before acknowledging that she and Stills “decided he was the smartest person we ever knew.” Launching into what Collins describes as a song Cohen “wrote in the ’80s when he saw what was coming,” she, Stills, and the band perform the title track from their new album, Everybody Knows.
On this brilliant minor key folk-rocker which features Collins on acoustic guitar and tasty piano fills by Russell Walden, Collins and Stills comment on the state of the world singing, “Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich,” before Collins encourages the audience to sing along on the “Everybody knows/Everybody knows” chorus.
“I really like this format,” states Stills, before exclaiming, “I’m not beholden to sing my own hits!” Introducing a song by someone whom he calls “the weird Canadian,” he performs Neil Young’s “Long May You Run,” a number that features strong five-part vocal harmonies from the entire ensemble.
“Tom Petty wrote this next song,” announces Stills, before he performs “I Won’t Back Down.” Stills ably handles the lead vocal on this number, which features psychedelic synthesizer sounds and a driving rhythm. The band clearly feels the energy simmering as they support Stills’ screaming guitar solo.
A highlight of the evening is Judy Collins’ performance of “Both Sides, Now.” Poised like a classical singer, her voice floats through the air. Playing with the song’s melodic rhythm on specific lines — subtly speeding up a phrase here or slowing one down a bit later — she connects deeply with this audience on lyrics like, “Something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day.”
Hitting the high note squarely on the head at the conclusion, the sold-out crowd gives Collins a well-earned standing ovation!
Dispensing of her guitar, Collins goes on to perform Jacques Brels’ “Sons Of,” an old-fashioned song which is brilliantly accompanied on the piano by Russell Walden’s sparkling and arpeggiated arrangement. As the audience applauds, Collins thanks the crowd before a fan yells out, “YAY!”
Welcoming back Stills, Collins says, “I adore Jimmy Webb,” before handling the lead vocal on Webb’s composition, “The Highwayman.” With its driving locomotive rhythm, the number moves ever forward supported by solid three-part background vocal harmonies.
As soon as the crowd recognizes the first few bars of the next piece, they immediately begin to clap for Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Southern Cross.” Controlling his vibrato, Stills sings lead, and when the group breaks into five-part harmony, the song really shines. Moving into the duo section on the verse, Stills and Collins blend nicely, making members of the audience want to join in singing on the “I have been around the world/Lookin’ for that woman girl” chorus. On his solo, Stills uses his guitar’s volume control and whammy bar to create an effect which recreates the sound of a steel guitar.
Following another standing ovation, the duo performs yet another highlight of tonight’s show. Talking about the time she first met Stills in the recording studio, Collins says, “I was smitten even before he started playing the guitar” — to which Stills responds by stating that when he met Collins, he “found out her blue eyes were much better in person.” At this point, Collins introduces the next number as the first one the pair ever recorded together — “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.”
On this magnificent performance, Collins’ ethereal voice is accompanied by breathtaking chord changes, her full, rich sound ringing out as Stills delights the crowd with a sensitive guitar solo.
The pair is rewarded with another well-deserved standing ovation before Collins introduces “a song by our friend, Joni Mitchell.” Here, Collins, Stills, and Company perform “Chelsea Morning.” On this upbeat Mitchell classic, the pair’s acoustic guitars sparkle with their open tunings and Collins’ voice sounds so young and sweet, it defies the fact that on May 1, 2019 she will turn 80 years of age!
The crowd cheers and Stills says, “For five decades, we’ve had this song,” before acknowledging, “I put it in the closet, but take it out whenever we need it.” Here, he performs one of the most iconic songs of the ’60s, his Buffalo Springfield masterpiece, “For What It’s Worth.” Opening with the famous vibrato harmonics played on his guitar, Stills sings with husky soul, and the crowd can’t help but rock to the “Stop, hey, what’s that sound/Everybody look what’s going down” chorus. They’re also treated to a trademark Stephen Stills distortion guitar solo with lots of fingerboard acrobatics as audience members sing and clap their way to another standing ovation.
After Stills asks “Another one?” he and his colleagues perform another Buffalo Springfield number, “Bluebird.” This harmonious folk-rocker features Stills’ wailing vocal and a series of extended high-quality solos by Russell Walden on organ, Kevin McCormick on bass — doubled up an octave to give it a higher sound — and Stills experimenting on his guitar with sustained tones. Trading off a la The Allman Brothers Band, the musicians jam in crashing waves, all the while supported by Tony Beard’s solid drumming.
Building to a crescendo, the sold-out crowd breaks into applause at the big ending and leaps to its feet!
After hugging one another, Stills and Collins take leave of the stage. They soon return for an encore of “Houses,” a number Collins wrote about her relationship with Stills, stating, “In 1972, I wrote a song when I was just getting over our breakup,” before revealing, “This is the song.”
Stoically, she stands behind the microphone like a folk princess singing, “All the bells are ringing/The weddings have begun/But I can only stand here/I cannot move to follow,” on this emotional ballad.
The audience enthusiastically applauds before Stills plays his iconic open-tuned acoustic guitar introduction to the Crosby, Stills and Nash masterwork which he wrote about Judy Collins, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Segueing right to the “Chestnut brown canary, ruby throated sparrow” segment, the audience witnesses musical history on this very stage as songwriter and subject perform one of folk rock music’s classic compositions together.
The audience stands, claps, dances, and sings on the “Doo-doo-doo-doo doo” coda, joyfully transported back to an earlier place and time!
As the crowd happily makes its way out of the theater, we chat with Eley from Teaneck who says, “I loved this concert!” before exclaiming, “For me, ‘Both Sides, Now’ is my favorite song ever — ever — ever!”
We also converse with Nathan of Manhattan who acknowledges, “I give it an A-plus,” before disclosing, “I’m a big Stephen Stills fan, but it was great to see them both together.”
Seamus of Little Ferry — who has seen Judy Collins ten times in concert, starting with his first show nearly two decades ago — comments, “Her hair has gotten a little whiter, but she still sounds great!”
Stan from Suffern, NY — here with his wife, Beverly — admits he will always have a soft spot for Judy Collins because one of his first dates with Beverly took place at a Collins’ concert. Confessing, “I made my move that night and put my arm around her!” Stan says, “I wanted to hear Judy again — her melodic voice — and I heard it,” to which Beverly exclaims, “And she still has it!”’
Lastly, we catch up with Morgan from Boyertown — the fan whom we met earlier in the front row — to get her reaction to tonight’s performance.
Comments Morgan, “This is one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen! I’m a huge fan of Stephen Stills. It was incredible to be up so close to such an amazing artist.” Revealing, “I understand he’s experienced hearing issues since he was a child, but he still sounds fantastic,” Morgan acknowledges, “When he started to perform ‘For What It’s Worth’ I started to tear up — I’ve been listening to that song my whole life, so getting to hear it played live was really special for me.”
After further commenting, “I’m 21 years old, and if Stephen Stills reads this story, I just want him to know one thing — that people my age love his music and we are not going to let it die,” Morgan concludes by declaring, “This music is going to live forever.”
To learn more about Stephen Stills’ and Judy Collins’ current tour, please go to stephenstillsjudycollins.com. To find out more about Judy Collins, please click on judycollins.com. For further information on Stephen Stills, please click on to stephenstills.com. For more on future concerts at BergenPAC — including Dion on July 15; Hippiefest 2018 featuring Vanilla Fudge, Rick Derringer, Mitch Ryder & The Detriot Wheels, and Badfinger starring Joey Molland on July 15; and Three Dog Night on October 14 — please go to bergenpac.orgPhotos by Love Imagery
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