Judy Collins unpacks the dizzying history of the folk movement one musical story at a time. She sings the song her good friend Joan Baez wrote about her relationship with Bob Dylan, the song Collins recorded for Leonard Cohen that gave him the confidence to start performing, the billboard hits of her contemporaries that make aging parents smile with one side of their mouths and, against their better judgment, tell their children stories they'll never believe.
It was an old New York era Collins transported the audience back to on Tuesday night at the Cafe Carlyle. When the lights went down and that flawless voice pierced through the cozy space, it felt like a simpler time when a nice restaurant could serve perfect chicken and mashed potatoes and elegant cocktails without referencing anything and a master pianist was all the backup a good singer-songwriter needed.
Hair swept off her face like white cotton candy, she trilled Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'That's For Me,' nailing notes so high the crowd burst into delighted applause before she was done.
"I can only do that because of my treadmill," she explained.
So began her seamless arrangement of songs loaded with rich memories laid upon wayward anecdotes that often ran right into her music. Collins soared through 'Both Sides Now,' her famous rendition of the song by Joni Mitchell ("She was a tall, skinny blonde from a radical family.") Her own Colorado upbringing was more conventional.
"My father wanted me to be a real musician, so I played Mozart and W.C.," she said. "Then I found folk music." Much to her classical piano teacher's chagrin: "She'd take my hand and look in my eyes and say, 'Little Judy Collins could have gone somewhere!'"
Thankfully, Collins "found these songs on the radio" and made some of her own.
"Leonard Cohen was the one who asked me, 'Why aren't you writing your own songs?'" she said.
Then she drifted into a few lines of 'Suzanne,' the song Cohen wrote for her to sing but instead made him famous, stopping herself just as she got to those oranges that traveled halfway around the world to be fed riverside to Cohen in the summer of 1965. She still had to revisit the Beatles, Jimmy Webb and Stephen Sondheim, after all.
Collins is 70 (she celebrated her birthday in May with a six-week engagement at the Carlyle and has returned for a two-week encore.) Her voice is so perfectly preserved her age might be an afterthought if it wasn't so often her punch line.
"I want to thank all the people that make me look and sound like Judy Collins," she said. She started with Elizabeth Arden.
She's also working on a new memoir about "sex, drugs and rock and roll," a happy departure from her last book which focused on her son's 1992 suicide.
"Some of you may recognize yourselves in some of the crowd scenes," she told the audience with the familiarity of an intimate dinner party's hostess entertaining her guests.
This is how people should grow old: surrounded by friends, lit from within by electric memories and very, very good at something.
An Evening With Judy Collins plays Tuesday through Saturday until October 8 at the Cafe Carlyle, (212) 744-1600, thecarlyle.com.WATCH Judy Collins sing 'Suzanne': WATCH Judy Collins and Joan Baez sing 'Diamonds and Rust':