Enduring renaissance woman Judy Collins is back for a continued victory lap at Cafe Carlyle, asserting her legendary status as the great interpreter of works by Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Stephen Sondheim. Collins pays tribute to all three artists, but particularly focuses on Sondheim for this setlist. It’s a gamble that mostly pays off. Much of Sondheim demands precise vocal powerhouses and at 78, Collins’ voice has a little bit of give to it that isn’t ideal when singing, say, Johanna from Sweeney Todd. But what a delight it is to see an artist with nearly sixty years in the business continue to explore her musical boundaries on her own terms. Here, we see her both surveying her career and finding increasingly more meaning in songs that she’s been performing all along with Russell Walden alongside her on piano.
If the younger-skewing Sondheim tunes aren’t the best fit for her, she earns the great numbers that he wrote for mature women. She’s not brassy like Elaine Stritch or Carol Burnett, but living a full and fascinating life more than qualifies her to take on “I’m Still Here” with some well-placed chuckles throughout. Of course, she is intimately attached to “Send in the Clowns,” and strikes the right amount of melancholy in a song that can easily turn bitter. Collins isn’t quite as well known for writing her own songs, but the taste of the music she’s written that we get here shows a timeless folk artist getting to the core of human suffering without being exploitative. The recently written “Maria,” an ode to DACA recipients, features classic, strikingly political folk storytelling. Better still is her 1990 song, “The Blizzard,” about a woman finding her independence and self-worth after the end of a significant relationship.
With the density of her material also comes lighthearted observations from a life well-lived. If at one point, she sings of the pain of love lost, seconds later she’ll drop a statement about how she missed out on drugs because she thought it would interfere with her drinking. What a treasure!
Photos: David Andrako
Judy Collins is in residence at Cafe Carlyle through April 7th.