Review by Don Wilcock
Photographs by Richard A. Siciliano
Who owns a song?
Songs are like hats or suits. They can become costumes to singers that define their image to their public and the public’s acceptance of their talent in a way that has little bearing on how talented they are otherwise. Bob Dylan has a terrible voice by most standards, but his songs defined a generation and the complex references to literary touchstones and history – often rewritten – still have his fans studying him like a messiah half a century into his career. Tony Bennett once told me the secret to his long career and renewed acceptance by younger generations was a good song. To each, their songs are as important as Garth Brook’s black hat, Dr. John’s cap, Jimi Hendrix’s military gingerbread or Keith Richards’ studied hobo decadence.
Both Jimmy Webb and Judy Collins wore black spangles at this performance and both sang great songs. The difference between them is the question of who owns their songs. Jimmy Webb has written hundreds of great songs like “Wichita Lineman,” “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Up, Up and Away,” dozens of them in the collective consciousness of the general public. But all of them were made hits by other artists, in this case Glen Campbell and the Fifth Dimension. Judy Collins, on the other hand, has built a career of interpreting other artists’ songs to the point of having her versions transcend the originals.
When we hear Jimmy Webb sing “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman” alone on a Steinway grand piano, it’s a different experience than the Glen Campbell version that’s been programmed into our brains for 45 years. The words are the same, but the emotions they elicit are not as strong because in our mind we know its Glen Campbell agonizing over the distance between him and his lady, not this guy Webb.
When we hear Judy Collins sing Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust,” it’s easier for us to suspend our disbelief and fantasize that she’s recalling the romance of her own relationship with another musical icon – Stephen Stills, perhaps – rather than interpreting a song written by Joan Baez about her affair with Bob Dylan. Judy makes us believe her own folk Madonna mantel and forget Joan Baez’s version.
Jimmy Webb had an uphill challenge as special guest at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall opening for Judy. Collins is an adult Alice projecting a vision of Wonderland made more poignant by a long career marked with tragedies like her son’s suicide and her mother’s recent death from Alzheimer’s.
Every time I hear Judy recount her memories of her own early career in Greenwich Village at the dawn of “the folk scare” (as Dave Van Ronk so sardonically referred to the movement), she transports me back to the best times spent in Harvard Square coffeehouses. At 73, Judy still has a clarion voice so perfect that it rings with the same pristine purity as the sound of an index finger circling the rim of a fine crystal wine glass half filled with chardonnay. She can stand before a sellout crowd at the Music Hall, talk to us as if she were having an intimate conversation with an old lover and suddenly start singing in her perfect alto chime, seemingly without taking a breath. She makes great art appear as simple and without guile as a private rendezvous.
Both Webb and Collins are consummate entertainers, but Judy convinced us that Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind,” Jacques Brel’s “Sons Of,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” and the Beatles’ “In My Life” were hers. Webb had a tougher time convincing us that “The Highwayman” didn’t belong to Waylon and Willie, and that “Galveston” wasn’t all about Glen Campbell’s fear of dying in Vietnam.
Of course, to even consider comparing Jimmy Webb’s voice to Judy Collins’ is just unfair. He snared the audience into helping him hit the high notes on “Up, Up and Away,” and he split the sellout crowd into a three-part harmony choir for “The Worst That Could Happen,” a song he admitted was “evil spirited” but was a hit for Johnny Maestro & the Brooklyn Bridge. In a one hour and 16 minute set – only two minutes shorter than headliner Judy Collins – he performed only nine songs. What he did was resell the songs to Judy’s fans by telling personal anecdotes about his relationships with the artists who made them famous.
For “The Highwayman” he recalled meeting Waylon Jennings at a birthday party. Jennings was plopped down on a couch with his cowboy hat pulled down over his face. Webb approached the country outlaw and tried to engage him in small talk:
Webb: It’s been a big year.
Jennings: How’s that?
Webb: I won some awards.
Jennings: You did?
Webb: A bunch.
Jennings: What kind?
Webb: A Grammy!
Jennings: What for?
Webb: Best country.
Jennings: Which country was that?
“I got a million of those stories,” said Webb, “but I usually wait until the audience is warmer, or to put it bluntly, drunker.” This crowd certainly wasn’t drunk, but Webb spent the rest of his set proving that he had a million stories.
Webb’s unsung talent is in his sensitive touch on piano which turns his pop songs back into art songs. His piano arrangements on tunes “Didn’t We” recorded by Frank Sinatra and “All I Know,” a standout cut on his Just Across the River CD for which he brought Linda Ronstadt out of retirement to do a duet, offered a glimpse into his talent without forcing one’s mind to forget the persona of the artist who made them hits. Or maybe that’s just because I haven’t listened to the Sinatra version that often.
And on “Wichita Lineman,” Webb was able to add a touch of melancholy only hinted at by Glen Campbell as he, Webb, at the end gradually played single notes on the piano with less and less volume until they trailed off into the ethers. “And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time/And the Wichita lineman/Is still on the line/Still on the line… Hanging on the line… Hanging on the line….”
NOTE: Judy Collins will perform in concert at the Wood Theater in Glens Falls at 7:30pm tonight (Monday, December 10). Jimmy Webb will NOT be performing, however. Singer-songwriter Rachael Sage opens the show. Tickets are $68.50.
Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Collins followed, accompanied by longtime pianist Russell Walden, strumming a 12-string guitar and clad all in black, like Webb. Her voice was like her abundant hair, silvery and lengthy, as she showed off still-remarkable command of long notes… She built her career on folk songs by others, as Tom Rush did, but Collins has modeled her own compositions more on European-classical art songs. Her touching ‘In the Twilight’ traced her mother’s life in tender terms from youth to decline, showing wisdom, acceptance, deep love and Sondheim-like economy, a peak in all ways and a showstopper. Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns’ followed but was by no means a step up from the peak Collins had just crafted and climbed. ‘In My Life’ — the Beatles’ most nostalgic and loving song — was a sumptuous encore.”
JUDY COLLINS SET LIST
Open the Door
Both Sides Now
A cappella snippets: I’ll Be Home for Christmas/I Saw Three Ships/Good King Wenceslas/Danny Boy
Diamonds and Rust
A cappella snippets: The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress/Amazing Grace
Houses>In the Twilight
Send in the Clowns
In My Life
JIMMY WEBB SET LIST
By the Time I Get to Phoenix
Up, Up and Away
The Worst That Could Happen