It’s not necessary to shell out what can be a couple of grand for front row seats to geriatric rockers like The Rolling Stones, The Who or The Eagles to relive the long bygone days of carefree youth of we baby boomers. The Carolina Theater in downtown Durham presented Judy Collins, one of the greatest iconic folksingers of the 1960s, in a stunning program of many of her most well-known songs, at a reasonable price and in an intimate setting.

But first, an appeal for some truth-in-advertising to the many presenters out there who neglect to tell us that there will be warm-up act(s) and who they are. Would it be too much to ask to inform the public of what we are actually buying tickets for, so, if nothing else, we can choose to skip the appetizer(s) for the main course?

Tonight’s soup (or salad) was Wildflowers recording artist (Judy Collins’ own label) Walter Parks, a very earnest folksinger with a wide vocal range and a great looking cherry red 1950s Gibson hollow body guitar. His guitar sounded great, he had a vocal range from deep, deep bass to an unconvincing falsetto, and he sang original songs that mostly described what it’s like to be a folksinger. I don’t envy anyone who has to perform before a crowd of people anxiously awaiting a legend, but still, his final short instrumental was most welcome.

After what seemed like an interminable “brief intermission,” a grey-haired man strode out to the piano followed by Judy Collins holding a 12-string guitar, and they launched right into “Song for Judith.” I was immediately and absolutely stunned. If you closed your eyes what you heard was the strong, crystalline and impossibly high voice of Judy from the 1960s, not a seventy-one year old woman – and it just got better and better as the evening wore on.

Prior to her emergence in the early 1960s as one of the great divas of traditional folk music, Judy Collins had already enjoyed a mini-career in her teens as a formidable concert pianist in Colorado. She was in the stew of all of the legendary figures in the Greenwich Village folk scene such as Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary and others. Her career has continued to blossom and expand for fifty years, yet even she recognizes the love that her fans have for her early body of work and her choice of songs generously fed into that.

While Judy has written a bit, it is her covers of many of her fellow folkies that are some of her most revered. She performed Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans,” all in her unique style. She is also quite a good guitarist, employing some interesting re-tunings of her powerful 12-string. She is also a fascinating storyteller and is not the least bit shy about touting her importance, influence and longevity. Hearkening back to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and others who came before her and whose purpose was social betterment as well as music, she still espouses causes like social equality and unions as she sang a cappella a few lines of some good old-fashioned “protest” songs like “Bread and Roses” and “The Hills of Shiloh.”

Her piano accompanist, Russell Walden*, seemed like a good guy, and a fine musician who had a few moments to shine, but his sound was definitely turned way down in comparison to Judy’s voice and guitar. We got to hear Judy at the piano only once, performing the beautiful and poetic “Since You Asked.” This was definitely the emotional highlight of the night. She went way back to her early albums to sing “Anathea” and it was especially in this song that she nailed some high notes that a twenty year old opera singer would die for. 

Beginning in the 1980s, Judy began to branch out into more pop, cabaret and standards with mixed results and tonight’s somewhat sterile portrayal of “When You Wish Upon a Star” was an example of the negative end of that spectrum. For an encore she sang Sondheim’s mega-hit “Send in the Clowns,” a song which has become somewhat of a trademark of her later career.

This was truly a magical evening. As I looked around, I noticed the age was in a similar range and about a generation younger than, say, those who tend to dominate chamber music recitals. For a little more than an hour we were transported back to what now seems like a dream. Amazingly, the woman who was doing that sounded as good or better than before.

*Corrected 4/4/11 with thanks to an observant reader.