In My Life: On Tour With Stephen Stills and Judy Collins
It is not often you get to see two legends whose lives have been so intertwined as Stephen Stills and Judy Collins. With over a hundred years between them and the heights they achieved, one less in the know might be tempted to say, “Didn’t they used to be big?” To paraphrase Norma Desmond, “They still are. It’s the times that got small.”
But those times are not small, and Stills and Collins remain at the top of their respective games. They have also joined forces for an autumn tour that should not be missed. I caught them in one of the great movie palaces that’s become a welcoming performing arts center, the Keith-Albee Theatre in Huntington, West Virginia. That stage holds a lot of memories for me: It was where I saw Margot Fonteyn dance, Marcel Marceau mime, introduced to Stephen Sondheim (Company), and heard Lou Reed being Lou Reed.
It was that heady company that Stills and Collins joined when I saw them there. Buffalo Springfield could be called the first Americana band, and CSN(&Y) remains the quintessential supergroup, and Stills’ solo work and Manassas are without parallel. Once a dueling folk diva with Joan Baez, Collins recorded a string of great albums, introducing many great songwriters and becoming one herself. She also recorded one of the significant (and perfect) albums of the 20th century, In My Life, where she broke down the wall between folk and rock music.
As with Graham Nash, whom I saw a couple months back, there was no sense of nostalgia at this show and the stories alone were worth the price of admission. Stills recalled when he first met Collins, at the Troubadour, where Clapton was “debuting his new band, Cream.” Collins then recounted how Stills soon thereafter played on one of her albums. To top it off, Stills matter of factly said the key to their 50 friendship was “marrying other people.” A nice piece on the romance part of the relationship can be found here, from The New Yorker.
Collins introduced “Both Sides Now” by saying that she got a 3 a.m. phone call from Al Kooper, who told her “I am not going to apologize for calling. I’m handing the phone to Joni Mitchell to sing one of her songs.” It got the largest standing ovation of the night. She also recounted being introduced to Leonard Cohen, who wrote “darkly obscure poems,” and years later running into his Marianne in London, who told her, “You ruined my life.” Then she did “Suzanne.” That was my moment of choice. As with all young folks, we were an impressionable lot when that song came out. Every woman wanted to be Suzanne, and every man wanted to find her.
While Collins was the ever patient professional, Stills, who looked somewhat professorial, seemed a bit pre-occupied. We found out halfway through, his son was working in Las Vegas and Stills had heard that he was safe just hours before. Moreover, as Tom Petty lay gravely ill that night, they opened the show with The Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care,” dedicating it to him. While those events could have cast a pall over the evening, it became a communal adventure – some roads taken, things left behind, our mortality waiting in the wings.
While Stills did not flat out demonstrate how he is one of the great (and vastly under appreciated) guitarists around, he did stretch out several times, most notably in a performance of “For What It’s Worth” that brought the house down. However, it was a more subtle, nuanced solo that impressed me most, though not so much the audience. I cannot recall the song, as I did not take notes. I wanted to experience the performance. And take a few photos.
The set list did not vary much from a few nights before in Virginia, and, not resting on their laurels, they also did songs from their fine new album, Everybody Knows, including their lilting version of the title song. Notably, rather than doing the expected “Suite for Judy Blue Eyes,” Stills did someting much more beguiling: he did the long lost demo version that became that song. We had been invited into the creative process itself.
See them somewhere, anywhere, on this tour. They are that engaging, that freaking good. I also suggest younger musicians attend to see how it’s done, and done extremely well.
For another appreciation on the tour, here’s ND contributor Ken Abrams on their stop in Rhode Island, and ND’s Henry Carrigan on Collins’ book about her relationship with food. Surely, an abundance of riches.
Now, scroll through the photos of that wonderful evening, along with some pics of Stills and Collins taken by other ND photographers.