Music review: Judy Collins, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Not many singers, when they cover a classic, can not only credit the writer but recount how they were there when it was being written. Judy Collins can, singing Mr Tambourine Man, still with eloquence and clarity, after recounting how she overheard a young Mr Zimmerman trying out its phrasing.

Judy Collins PIC: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
Judy Collins PIC: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Judy Collins, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh ****

A consummate, indeed, one suspects, compulsive, performer over six decades, Collins, at an unbelievable 80 years-old, mingles wry and witty anecdotes with songs, name-checking Dylan, Steve Stills (with whom she had a turbulent affair, the end of which triggered notable songs from both protagonists), Stacey Keach (she sang alongside him in a production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt), Arlo Guthrie and, of course, Joni Mitchell, whose work she helped popularise early on, as well as a struggling young poet by the name of Leonard Cohen.

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Collins’s once ethereally floating soprano isn’t so pliable these days, and her opening numbers, Maid of Constant Sorrow and Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning, were worryingly uneven, not helped by excessive reverb. Things improved as the evening went on, though she still sounded somewhat forced in the higher register, as she largely accompanied herself on her trusty 12-string guitar – “so many strings, so little time,” she remarked while tuning. Long-time musical director Russell Walden played piano and provided discreet but effective vocal harmonies.

Collins recalled the telephone call that introduced her to Mitchell – cue the timeless Both Sides Now and, later, a warmly poignant rendering of River. She really got into her vocal stride, though, with Farewell to Tarwathie, poised and unaccompanied except for the requisite background recordings of humpback whale calls. Also from her back catalogue came the ominous reproach of Dylan’s Masters of War while from more recent years there was her own Arizona, with its “starlight and tumbleweed”, and Jimmy Webb’s epic, incarnation-hopping Highwayman from her current album with Norwegian singer Jonas Fjeld (who was unable to join her during the concert as planned).

She sat down at the piano for Cohen’s Suzanne, describing him as the smartest person she ever met – “He died on the morning of the American election” – before concluding with a heartfelt, poignant account of Send in the Clowns.

She encored, of course, with Amazing Grace, its cadences rising with that blend of exhortation and yearning that had the hall reverting to its original role as a church, as her congregation joined in, utterly converted. Jim Gilchrist