The hair is still long and abundant, just white now. Those cheekbones are still striking, like when Francesco Scavullo first photographed them. And those eyes, still intense and intensely blue. No wonder Stephen Stills entitled a song after them.
Most important, though, is that Judy Collins still has that voice: that gloriously crystalline soprano and an ability to make any song — whether by Leonard Cohen, Stephen Sondheim or the Beatles — breathtaking. That’s at age 79, 59 years into a career, as she noted Wednesday at the first of two sold-out nights at the Dakota Jazz Club.
For the past year, Collins has been touring with her old beau, Stills, who was inspired to write “Suite: Judy Blues Eyes” about their relationship. Last year, they made an album together, and they’re touring again later this year. In the meantime, Collins has resumed her solo show, a night of stories and songs that she’s been bringing to the Dakota for the past 10 years.
The show has evolved and the repertoire changes regularly. During Wednesday’s 95-minute set, Collins did a few of her best-known songs — Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” — and many lesser-known songs. There was even a new number. But what made the evening extra special was Collins’ easy humor, quick asides and engaging stories.
Starting the night by calling herself the “American idol of 1957,” Collins later spun a yarn about meeting a woman a few years ago in Norway who introduced herself as “Marianne, Leonard’s Marianne.” Marianne seemed upset at Collins for pulling Cohen away from Greece to the United States to play his songs for Collins. Said Marianne: “I just wanted to tell you, you ruined my life.”
Collins assured the Dakota audience that things worked out. “It’s OK. We became friends on Facebook.”
Of course, then Collins sang “Suzanne,” the song about Marianne, a mesmerizing meditation on a lover, with high cooing at the end that was both dreamy and mysterious.
And Collins being Collins, the longtime activist had to add a post-song political zinger. She described many of Cohen’s great qualities, ending with “the smartest man I’ve known because he died the day of the election.”
There were a couple of times when Collins seemed to have senior moments, forgetting a lyric on two tunes and saying Argentina and then correcting herself with a different “A” country, Australia. Call that perfectly imperfect.
Accompanied by her own acoustic 12-string guitar and Russell Walden’s rich but understated grand piano, Collins did what she does best — sing with artful elegance, penetrating emotion and incandescent beauty. With her, folk tunes and Broadway numbers became art songs of commanding power and exquisite resonance.
“Who Knows Where the Time Goes” was both spacey and romantic. “Suzanne” was freshly seductive. “When I Go” was a haunting Western epic. Her Sondheim medley took the lyrics out of their theatrical context and transported listeners in new insightful ways.
Despite her sublime interpretive powers, don’t underestimate Collins’ own songwriting prowess. Early in the evening, she offered a new number about Maria who had come from Mexico and her daughter, a dreamer who feared deportation. The audience sat in silence, absorbing this heartbreaking narrative.
Late in the evening at the piano, Collins began reciting a letter from her grandmother before launching into a song about her, “Secret Gardens.” That segued into a piece about her own mother, “In the Twilight,” filled with vivid details, poetic memories and unquestioned love.
It was just Judy-full.