Concert Highlights: Judy Collins, 1/2/2015

There’s nothing like seeing anything with Danny Fields, but especially something that he was intimately involved in—which doesn’t much narrow it down.

Case in point: Judy Collins. Danny was so much a part of her career when he was working at Elektra in the 1960s and she was a roster artist that she’s in the forthcoming Danny documentary Danny Says. When I found out on Dec 30 from her concert opener Ari Hest—in the Fab Faux’s dressing room at City Winery following the band’s dead-on performance of Danny’s favorite Beatles’ album Rubber Soul in its entirety—I brought him with me to see her Jan. 2 at City Winery.

Due to hot saki and two electronic pot hits, I’m afraid I took worse notes than usual. Hence, this account will likely be especially incoherent and meandering. About all I can say with certainty is that Judy Collins remains a national treasure, along with Linda Ronstadt one of our two broadest interpreters of popular song. That said, I can also say that she opened with “Open the Door,” one of her most beautiful original songs and sentiments (“I’d like to be as good a friend to you as you are to me”).

We sat at a table with a couple in town from Chicago. The wife had first seen Judy in 1969. Judy, meanwhile, looked out at Varick Street from the City Winery stage facing it, and recalled coming to New York herself from Denver and playing Gerdes Folk City in 1961—and wondered if anyone in the audiience was even alive then, besides, that is, me and Danny.

“Everybody was there–Joan [Baez] and Mimi [Farina, Baez’s sister]. Even Cisco Houston, who had only a couple months to live. Peter, Paul and Mary, before they were Peter, Paul and Mary. And a guy at the bar who was so pathetic, singing old Woody Guthrie songs—and not the best ones. I thought he was sad, that he didn’t have any repertoire. That was Bob Dylan. And I thought it was wonderful that they all came to see me and then I found out that my opener was a 13 year old named Arlo.”

Judy sang something that had to have been so beautiful, because the Chicago wife was weeping openly afterwards and saying something to Danny. I really wanted to let her know who Danny is—or at least direct her to this fab piece I wrote a few months ago!—but I knew Danny would modestly shrug it off.

Judy was now noting that Marcia, her grade school friend from Denver whom she’d known for 63 years, was in the audience, that they’d been in a group in the ‘50s called The Little Reds, assuring the audience that in those days, “[Little Reds] meant nothing political.” She mentioned meeting up with Leonard Cohen’s singer-songwriter son Adam while touring Australia. “You’d be proud of me for not telling him I put him through school,” she said, and indeed, Leonard Cohen was one of many budding or otherwise then unknown songwriters she championed throughout her career.

Me? I was unusually jumpy, maybe because of the weed, maybe because Danny had explained to the Chicagoans that we hadn’t paid for the seat at our table that we let the wife have because we were VIPs. Whatever, something went to my head, and when it became clear that the waitress had forgotten my second whiskey, I pointedly, perhaps arrogantly, gestured at her from across the room. She rushed over with it and apologized. I waved her off and downed it like the VIP Danny said we were.

Judy was talking about her early music influences—the old folk song ballad “Barbara Allen,” via Jo Stafford (me and Danny nodded at each other and made referece to Stafford’s hit “Shrimp Boats”), and of course, The Highwaymen’s “Gypsy Rover.”

I’ve heard her sing “Gypsy Rover” many times. But I also got to hear The Highwaymen sing it, a few years ago when the four then-surviving members of the original quintet regrouped and performed at the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference at the Hilton.

I couldn’t believe it when I saw the listing and read the blurb. I didn’t think it was possible that The Highwaymen—the early ‘60s folk group who arguably recorded the definitive baby boomer versions of “Michael (Row the Boat Ashore)” (which actually topped the pop charts in 1960), “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “Cotton Fields” and “The Gypsy Rover”—were still together, let alone still alive. Yet there they were, doing 20-minute sets for talent buyers in little showcase rooms at the hotel.

I was blown away. I was eight when “Michael” came out, and here I was speaking with lead singer Steve Fisher, who had formed the group with four other Wesleyan freshmen in 1958. I told him how I always loved to hear Judy Collins sing it in concert, and he said that they’d never met her, but were about to open a show for her and that they were so excited about it they didn’t know what to say. I also told him how I often found myself (and still do) singing the plaintive “Ah-dee-do, ah-dee-do-dah-day/Ah-dee-do, ah-dee-day-dee” chorus on the street, even in the shower at the gym (not recommended). He laughed.

Sadly, Dave died in 2010, and was followed in 2011 by Bob Burnett and Gil Robbins (Tim Robbins’ father, who had joined the group in 1962). That leaves only Steve Trott and Steve Butts of the original five, Chan Daniels having died in 1975. I relate all this here because meeting them and hearing them was like meeting Odetta, many of whose songs they also popularized. And when Judy sang the “Gypsy Rover” chorus a cappella at City Winery, I chimed in with everyone else, this time without embarrassment.

And then it was back to Bob Dylan. She joked about hearing the forthcoming Dylan Shadows in the Night album of Sinatra songs, which she’s apparently not too impressed with. But acknowledging that “he changed our lives forever,” she said, before leading the SRO crowd in “Tambourine Man” (which she recorded after being present when he wrote it): “He can sing Rogers and Hammerstein if he wants. He can do anything he wants.”

Yeah, well he can’t do Sondheim. Judy can and did: three Sondheims ending with “Send in the Clowns” (the other two are lost to incapacitation). And she could have done any number of other writers—Webb, Weill and Robin Williamson, to start with “W.”

Not to mention Ari Hest! He came up to sing his excellent song “The Fire Plays,” with Judy accompanying him beautifully–after a gushing intro thanking him for joining her on a trip to perform at some castle in Ireland (like anyone wouldn’t? Shit, I’d have carried her guitar!).

Just remembered! She kicked off her shoes for an encore at the piano after starting it and then discovering she could get “a better grip on the pedal” without them. Otherwise her longtime piano/vocal accompanist Russell Walden was wonderful as ever. They did a stunning version of Billy Ed Wheeler’s “Coal Tattoo” and it made me wish she’d do a whole album with Richard Thompson

Danny was thrilled that she encored with “In My Life” from Rubber Soul (also the titletrack of her 1966 breakthrough album) and then she finished traditionally with “Amazing Grace.” Now I had tears in my eyes, which, when closed, melted the decades back to that night at Gerdes in 1961.