Inside Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center for the Arts this Sunday, September 10, 2023 evening, a packed house excitedly anticipates a live performance by singer/songwriter Judy Collins.
Judy Collins’ musical career has spanned seven decades. Known for her eclectic taste in the material she performs — folk, country, show tunes, pop, rock, and standards — Collins has recorded 36 studio albums, nine live albums, and 21 singles. Her first charting single, “Hard Lovin’ Loser,” came from her fifth studio album, In My Life, but it was Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” from Judy’s 1967 album Wildflowers, that gave Collins international prominence and won her a Grammy for Best Folk Vocal Performance. Her success continued with recordings including “Chelsea Morning,” also written by Joni Mitchell, “Someday Soon,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
The biggest success of Collins’ career came with her 1975 recording of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” the lead single from her tenth studio album, Judith. The record first charted in 1975 and then again in 1977 and earned Collins a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance. Judith also became Collins’ best-selling studio album; in 1996, it was certified platinum for sales of over 1,000,000 copies.
In 2017, Collins’ rendition of “Amazing Grace,” was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. That same year, Collins received a Grammy nomination for her album, Silver Skies Blue, with the American singer/songwriter Ari Hest. In 2019, at the age of 80, Collins scored her first #1 album on the American Billboard chart with Winter Stories, a duet recording with Norwegian musician Jonas Fjeld. Collins’ most recent effort is 2022’s Spellbound — her first-ever studio album of all original material — which earned her yet another Grammy nomination.
The crowd inside the Grunin Center auditorium avidly applauds as Collins takes the stage along with pianist Russell Walden. Dressed in a sparkling black outfit with pink boots, Collins straps on her 12-string guitar and opens tonight’s 90-minute set with “Mountain Girl.”
Collins’ light and fluid voice easily glides up and down the scale as she sings, “Mountain girl in the city/You’ve been gone far too long/Find your way back to the mountains/Where you know you belong,” on this uptempo folk song which has Walden deftly accompanying her on the keyboard.
Welcoming concertgoers to the show, Collins points out that this is the first time she and the Toms River audience have been together since the lockdown. She tells a story about how, after recording her friend Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” Cohen asked, “Why aren’t you writing your own songs?” According to Collins, that day, she went home and created her very first composition, “Since You’ve Asked.” On this beautiful folk ballad, Collins croons, “What I’ll give you since you’ve asked/Is all my time together/Take the rugged sunny days/The warm and rocky weather,” as Walden’s piano playing accompanies the tune’s flowing melody.
Collins charms the audience with a story of her musical debut with her musician father when, at the age of three-and-a half, she sang “the only song I knew for a concert” — “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” — even though the show took place in July.
After reminiscing about her friendship with Joan Baez, Collins’ performs Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust.” Her soprano floats high and sweetly over the audience as she croons, “We both know what memories can bring/They bring diamonds and rust” on this minor-key folk tune.
Moving onto a newer original number from Spellbound, Walden sings harmony as he adds his top-notch piano accompaniment to Collins’ performance of “Hell on Wheels,” a folk-rocker about the potential horrors of drinking and driving.
Confessing, “Spellbound is my first album of all my own songs, and it took me 16 years to write!” Collins sails into another number based on her personal history entitled “When I Was a Girl from Colorado.” With its rolling accompaniment and legato vocal line, the audience appreciates how Collins’ pure vocal tone moves the story forward on this folk-rocker where she chants, “When I was a girl in Colorado/I could conquer anything/I could fly with wings of silver/I could whisper, I could sing.”
After revealing how she’s always enjoyed the songwriting of such ’60s folk artists as Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, and Ed McCurdy, the audience joins Collins in singing an impromptu rendition of McCurdy’s “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” after which Collins exclaims, “I’m glad you know that song!”
Recalling that back in 1967 her friend, Al Kooper from Blood, Sweat and Tears, put Joni Mitchell on the phone to sing “Both Sides Now” for the first time for her, Collins performs another early Mitchell tune, “The Song About the Midway,” where she croons, “Slowin’ down, I’m gettin’ tired, slowin’ down” on this 1966 effort.
Announcing, “Here’s one of my favorites!” music lovers in the crowd applaud as they recognize the piano intro to “River.” Her pure tune willows out as she sings, “Oh, I wish I had a river/I could skate away on” on this classic Joni Mitchell ballad which elicits audience cheers and applause.
Concertgoers clap when they hear the arpeggiated piano intro to “Both Sides Now.” Taking rhythmic liberties with the song, Collins breathes new life into the arrangement by singing around the melody on the famous “I’ve looked at life from both sides now” lyric.
Moving onto another cut from Spellbound, Collins’ voice floats above the crowd on the melody of “Prairie Dream,” a modern folk song with a Native American rhythmic vibe where Walden adds vocal harmonies to the tune’s dramatic “Sundown/sunrise” refrain.
Exclaiming, “I love Jimmy Webb!” Walden plays the piano as Collins strums her 12-string and sings Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman.” The arrangement continues to build as Walden adds a cascading keyboard part to her interpretation of this imaginative folk-rocker.
Walden leaves Collins alone on stage at the piano to perform “Grand Canyon” from Spellbound. Her skillful piano playing accompanies her voice which paints pictures through the poetry of this composition, the legato vocal line and rhythmic piano complimenting one another on this lovely ballad. At the conclusion, the crowd cheers and an audience member cries, “That voice!”
Collins tells a story about how when Kris Kristofferson first played his song, “Me and Bobby McGee,” for her, her immediate reaction was a simple “I don’t think so.” She confesses that, years later, when she was asked to play two shows with Kristofferson in Aspen and needed to perform a song about Colorado, she wrote “The Blizzard” in Connecticut during a snow storm. Playing with feeling on this cinematic composition, Collins’ cascading piano playing accompanies her breakup story before she ends with the dramatic lyric, “I knew you could leave me, but you’d never break me.”
The crowd cheers, and Collins leaves the stage but returns to sing “Goodnight Irene” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” with the audience where she leads the singalong with her pure soprano voice.
A highlight of the evening is Collins’ performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” Her face conveys the sentiment of the lyric as she croons “Where are the clowns? There ought to be clowns” while Walden expertly accompanies her on the piano. The audience responds with a standing ovation, after which Collins blows kisses to the crowd and waves goodnight.
Returning for an encore performance of “Amazing Grace,” music lovers in the house sing the melody as Collins performs a descant above them. At the end, the crowd stands cheering , and Collins responds, “Thank you so much! God bless you!” leaving the audience Spellbound for more.
To learn more about Judy Collins, please go to judycollins.com. For information on upcoming concerts at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center of the Arts — including Swingadelic on October 8, and Classic Stones Live on November 11 — please go to grunincenter.org.
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