It’s only a five-minute walk from my home, but I’ve only attended about a half dozen events at the Bergen Performing Arts Center (BergenPAC) over the years. There are all sorts of reasons why I should have gone more: the fine adaptive reuse of the first-run movie house of my childhood into a hall with the kind of acoustics that far better-known venues would kill for; a varied calendar with something for everyone—jazz, classical, rhythm and blues, pop/rock/folk, comedy, family musicals; and the need to support cultural programming at a time when this area—and all the arts—could surely use it.
But something usually got in the way. Maybe it had something to do with a commute that sometimes leaves me depleted even into the weekend. At other times, when I attempted to buy tickets for acts (such as Todd Rundgren and Hall and Oates) I saw years ago as part of Central Park’s Schaefer Music Festival, I was put off by the vast difference in prices. Maybe all of this also had a little bit to do with failure to appreciate a special cultural institution right near me here in Englewood, N.J., while there was still a chance to enjoy it.
But on this past Saturday night, I saw those obstacles melting away when I thought of Judy Collins and Jimmy Webb. Seats for their show that night were still available, and with (comparatively) inexpensive prices, I ponied up for an upper-balcony ticket. At the end of the evening, I had enjoyed one of my favorite experiences in the 30 years after college when I had fallen out of the habit of regular concert-going.
I was only sorry that there weren’t more people around to enjoy it. My great luck in attending the show at all resulted from the fact that so many tickets were still available at the box office an hour before. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how two legends of the pop-music scene hadn’t sold out this performance long ago.
Collins, after all, even at age 73, still possesses silvery soprano tones barely diminished from the Sixties and Seventies, when she enjoyed hits such as “Both Sides Now,” “Amazing Grace” and “Send in the Clowns.”
As for Webb, the golden boy from Oklahoma who, only in his early 20s, wrote such Top 40 hits as “Up, Up and Away,” “Galveston,” “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park” has developed into an accomplished live performer himself. (As I argued in a prior post on the creation of this last hit, as a helpless romantic unafraid of giving full vent to his emotions, this member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame might be thought of as the Thomas Wolfe of pop music.) Both recovering substance abusers, they have gone on to endure and prevail, improbably, over time.
Despite owning several of his albums, I had never seen Webb in concert before Saturday night. As for Collins: I saw her three times in the Seventies, in Central Park, with the quality varying (the first show the best, the second the worst, and the third somewhere between). If I had any fear before the show, it was that time might have diminished a voice that, in youth, was one of unsurpassed beauty.
With the first song, her version of Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning,” it seemed that this might occur, as her voice seemed to struggle for its bearings over the combination of her guitar and the house Steinway played by her musical director, Russell Walden. As the show went on, however, she settled into a comfortable rhythm, with the familiar voice that could still move listeners with its purity.
Collins followed Webb’s lead from earlier in the night in converting her appearance into a kind of musical memoir. Between songs, she related her influences, including her father, a blind radio DJ who exposed her to all kinds of music, including several songs she performed for the audience to powerful effect, Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When,” the Irish tune “The Kerry Dancer” and Stan Jones’ “Ghost Riders in the Sky”; her onetime lover, Stephen Stills, who immortalized her with the hit “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” (and to whom she, in turn, paid tribute with “Helplessly Hoping”); and Joni Mitchell, creator of "Both Sides Now" as well as "Chelsea Morning."
Another songwriter whose work she covered was Webb. A few songs into her set, Webb provided piano accompaniment to her haunting version of his “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.” Calling Collins “the fairy godmother of lost songs,” Webb told the audience how in 1974, this tune had been rejected before Collins took it up. Since then, it’s been recorded by the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez, and Joe Cocker.
Webb had other often-entertaining stories of his career before he briefly shared the stage with Collins. He told how he wrote “Up, Up and Away” while indulging his hobby as a balloonist, only to see, to his horror, his influential local Oklahoma station wrongly ban it as pro-drug (it took his father, a Protestant minister, to argue the station manager into ending the restriction); how he hooked up with the “crazy Irish actor,” Richard Harris, to record “MacArthur Park”; how "All I Know," dismissed by a former lover as "silly," had been accepted by the "persnickety, perfectionist"--but golden-voiced--Art Garfunkel; and how, despite their political differences over the years, he felt he owed his career to Glen Campbell for his recordings of “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.”
Forget everything you ever remember about these latter songs once Webb performs them.By his own admission, he is not possessed of the greatest voice, but none of his interpreters can match him for the passion he brings to his material. Accompanied only by his piano, he turns these tunes inside out until, for the first time, you can hear his haunted characters--men alone--with startling immediacy. It’s just him out there, and that same sense of rawness and risk-taking informed his finale, “MacArthur Park.” Mid-song, he summoned all the energies from the house Steinway for the uptempo “Allegro” section, evoking a whole world of anguish and loss in chord after pounding chord.
Collins closed the show with "In My Life," one of her signature songs from the Sixties. It was not only an unspoken acknowledgement of its creator, John Lennon--whose death had occurred 32 years before to the night--but also a heartfelt tribute to the influences and the fans that had sustained herself and Webb over the years.
(Judy Collins performing in Bradford, Penn., February 5, 2009; Jimmy Webb performing live at The Bottom Line in New York City, August 24, 2003)