Like Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins started out as a folk singer in the 1960s and became so much more: activist, muse (Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"), mother, hitmaker, chanteuse, author, suicide-prevention crusader, icon.

After her first of two nights at the Dakota Jazz Club on Monday, add comedian to that list.

Collins was firing off Mae West's jokes, one-liners that Dolly Parton had uttered in an interview with Larry King and her own political jabs. After breaking into "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," she asked: "I just wondered if Sarah Palin knew that song."

Collins, 69, let her hair down -- her voluminous silver mane cascading to the middle of her back -- compared to her previous more formal performances in Twin Cities theaters and concert halls. She is getting ready to take her club act to New York's tony Cafe Carlyle for a six-week run starting April 21, and she was loose, familiar and political.

"You all know the '60s are on their way back; it's new and improved," Collins told a packed house. "I'm so proud of Obama. He signed on to my Twitter account."

Not only did she have a handful of jokes prepared ("We used to call it the Great American Songbook; now we call it the Rod Stewart Songbook") but a disruptive cough forced her to be even more informal and talkative. Moreover, the illness apparently affected her voice as her pitch often wavered in her upper register.

Finally, after hacking away several times, acoustic-guitarist Collins dispatched her pianist, Russell Walden, to the dressing room for some cough medicine. That was the tonic. Thereafter, Collins' vocals were more consistent and, at times, magical.

The 70-minute set covered the story of her career: from hearing her dad sing Irish folk songs to becoming a classically trained pianist, a New York folkie, a Beatles fan, meeting Leonard Cohen and writing her own music.

The singer answered a request -- "I'm a pushover," she said -- for the Beatles' "Blackbird," a highlight with its sweet simplicity. There were other goosebump-inducing moments in different styles of music: the gorgeously haunting "In the Hills of Shiloh," done a cappella with a lyric sheet; "My Father," which was so dreamy that she got lost in her singing; Cohen's captivating "Suzanne" done by herself on piano; "Since You've Asked," a graceful art song, melded with an elegant classical piano passage by Collins to "The Blizzard," an enrapturing story song that ended with her hitting a high clarion note, followed by a long, enthusiastic ovation.

There was no "Send in the Clowns," "Chelsea Morning" or "Amazing Grace." But no one was complaining about this iconic evening.

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719