So who knows where the time goes? Sadly, it only goes in one direction. But the past can be gracefully revived.
Stephen Stills and Judy Collins at Lynn Auditorium, Lynn, MA on June 21.
By Jason M. Rubin
The song was performed about three-quarters into the show, but it asserted the evening’s raison d’être. Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” a haunting reverie about change (and one of Judy Collins’ most beloved recordings) raised and answered the elemental question regarding the historical and musical significance of pairing Stephen Stills and Judy Collins. Isn’t it all about nostalgia?
Not really. After all, this was no typical reunion tour, the likes of which fill venues of all sizes these days (often with little more than one original member). No, because Stills and Collins were never bandmates; they were bedmates. This is a reunion of lovers (for the stage only) and the evident affection with which they continue to hold each other – and, even more significantly, for the music of their era – made for one very enchanted evening.
As Collins explained, the pair met 50 years ago, at a session for her eighth album (the title track of which was Denny’s aforementioned song). They were instantly smitten with each other and, though their romance didn’t last, each served as a songwriting muse for the other (most notably Stills’ “Bluebird” with Buffalo Springfield and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” with Crosby, Stills and Nash). Both she and Stills spoke frequently to the audience; not the typical stage patter, but rather more of an oral history of the times that inspired the songs they were performing. We learned about New York in the ’60s, Los Angeles in the ’70s, recording studios and concert halls, peers and collaborators, friends, lovers, and the common enemy of seemingly everyone in the auditorium, Donald Trump.
In addition to their own respective songbooks, the pair performed songs from friends and contemporaries, such as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jimmy Webb, Tom Petty, and the Traveling Wilburys. These are tunes from a time in which lyrics mattered. Sure, you wanted to be able to tap your foot, dance slow or fast, or crank up the radio as you cruised down the highway — but ultimately it was words that made these songwriters great.
That troubadour tradition set the stage for the first half of the concert, which covered the folkier aspects of the pair’s repertoire. Then Collins left and Stills led the rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums on Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.” When Collins took her solo turn, she performed her biggest hit, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and a new song, done a capella, about immigrants and dreamers. Both performers warranted — and received — standing ovations. From then on the overall tempo of the show quickened and the audience’s adoration grew.
Stills alternated electric and acoustic guitars while Collins strummed a 12-string acoustic. During “Bluebird,” Stills led a lengthy instrumental jam, coaxing psychedelic waves of sound from his Stratocaster. There was no doubt that his impressive digital dexterity and raw musical ability remain strong. But it was also clear that time has taken its toll on him in other ways. His voice has been gravelly for several years now, and his articulation – both singing and talking – has been affected by extensive dental problems. At this point he has also begun to walk very gingerly; he took advantage of numerous opportunities to sit during the concert. In spite of the fact that he appeared to be using a teleprompter, he forgot or messed up lyrics in a number of places. Still, he was responsible for many of the show’s highlights; aside from the “Bluebird” jam, the crowd responded enthusiastically to “Long May You Run” (taken from the 1976 Stills-Young Band album Southern Cross) and “For What It’s Worth,” his Buffalo Springfield-era anthem about political protest, which, he noted with some disdain, remains acutely relevant five decades later.
As for Collins, time has been kinder to her. Though her signature huge mane of hair is now white, her voice still sparkles and her range is spine-tingling, even on newer songs such as “River of Gold” from the duo’s fine 2017 album Everybody Knows. In fact, the difference in the quality of their voices took away, somewhat, from the overall success of the performance. There is such a huge gap between their respective timbres and ranges that the two never really harmonized that well; they could have used David Crosby to sing a middle part and help tie it all together. When she was singing and he was soloing — that was the perfect division of labor.
In all, Stills and Collins played six of the 10 songs on their recent album, plus a dozen others. A surprising omission was “Someday Soon,” an Ian and Sylvia track that Stills had suggested to Collins back at that 1968 recording session. A great clip of the two performing it with Graham Nash in 1990 can be found on YouTube (it’s worth it for Nash’s mullet alone). Also surprising: only the latter sections of “Suite: Judy Blues Eyes” – from “Chestnut brown canary” to the “doo doo doo doo doos” – were performed. Unsurprisingly, that classic track was the concert closer.
So who knows where the time goes? Sadly, it only goes in one direction. But the past can be gracefully revived and, via giant talents such as Stephen Stills and Judy Collins, we can be transported – and supported – via the songs that are an integral part of the lives we have led. In times like these we need to hear those invigorating messages again, because there’s something happening here and what it is is all too clear.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 31 years, the last 16 of which has been as senior writer at Libretto, a Boston-based strategic communications agency. An award-winning copywriter, he holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, maintains a blog called Dove Nested Towers, and for four years served as communications director and board member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the national association for graphic arts. His first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012.