Judy Collins review – a love letter to the great American songbook

St Ann’s Church, Manchester
Collins is the consummate storyteller as she tours through music by Mitchell, Sondheim and ‘pathetic’ Dylan

‘You’re looking at the American Idol of 1956. I’ve been doing this for 60 years,” says Judy Collins, now 79, sparkling from head to toe in pristine white with the ornate backdrop of the church’s stained-glass windows glowing behind her.

Accompanied by pianist Russell Walden, she tenderly strums an acoustic guitar to open with Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning. There’s a brief false start, called a “Judy moment”, but soon her voice is soaring through the room and not sounding anywhere close to its age. Performing the songs of others has been an indispensable part of Collins’ career, and tonight is a celebration of her lifelong quest to share the music she loves. She soon glides into the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, with Walden’s jumping piano lines and Collins’ guitar strums dancing around one another, while her voice projects a potent range and embracing warmth.

The evening unfolds in a series of stories and songs. Often Collins will be midway through an anecdote, usually centred on family, her life or somebody famous, and then she will break into song. Sometimes she sings just a snippet of a verse or chorus – from My Sweet Valentine to Rock Around the Clock – and at others she leaps straight into the next song. This intermingling of stories and songs, and songs within stories, and stories generating songs is a unique take on folk. It’s presented with such seamless timing and delivery that it is never tired or predictable.

Collins is frequently funny when regaling the audience. “The older I get, the cuter they are,” she says of a previous tour with Stephen Stills when there was a budget for a “cute guitar-tech minion”, then she pauses to tune her own. Of Bob Dylan during his Woody Guthrie-emulating period, she says: “I thought he was pathetic. It was embarrassing”. That attitude changed when she heard Dylan’s records, an acknowledgment she follows by playing Masters of War and Mr Tambourine Man. The former creeps with intensity as the guitar strums and the piano becomes more charged, brewing up a quiet force, while during the latter she instigates a singalong, creating her own personal backing choir as the voices reverberate throughout the church.

In 2017, Collins released the album A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim and this evening she plays several of the composer’s songs, such as the dreamy and lounge-esque No One Is Alone. There’s a knock-out, spine-tingling performance of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, which seems to linger in the air long after the words leave her mouth, while her take on Mitchell’s Both Sides Now is as stirring and delicate as ever.

Collins’ voice very occasionally cracks or slips, but it is largely impeccable and what she can still do with it remains staggering. Her love for other people’s songs is axiomatic – she treats them with such reverence and respect that you’d think they were her own. While she slips in her own material occasionally, such as In the Twilight, her performance is largely a heady amalgamation of fandom and artistry; a vast voyage through the great American songbook, delivered by one of its most treasured voices.

• At Gala theatre, Durham, on 21 January. Then touring.


Daniel Dylan Wray

The GuardianTramp

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