Judy Collins and Jimmy Webb teamed up Thursday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall to perform a richly nostalgic and cannily crowd-pleasing survey of long but very different careers.
While Webb has written tons of tunes since the 1960s for others to sing, and freely jokes about his own wobbly voice, Collins writes little but can still sing anything.
Webb, 66, played a similar sort of “my-life-in-music-and-mainly-at-the-top” retrospective at WAMC’s The Linda, while Collins, 73, has co-starred with Albany Pro Musica at previous Music Hall holiday shows.
On Thursday, Webb played first, alone at the piano. He populated this extra-long opener, via vividly recalled stories, with friends and colleagues who’ve recorded his well-known songs — notably Glen Campbell, whose renditions gave Webb hit after hit; the Fifth Dimension, for whom Webb drew the capacity-plus audience into a singalong substitute in “Up Up and Away;” and “Mr. Sinatra,” who recorded “This Time,” the last song Webb performed Thursday.
Webb talked as much as he sang, just nine songs and a few teases in 80 minutes, and he has honed his talk to a smoother expression than his singing. Nonetheless, he gave real drama to “Galveston,” revealing its antiwar message more fervently than “better” singers ever managed. When he missed the top notes on “Up Up and Away,” he conceded, “pretty close” before asking the eager crowd to sing with/for him.
Webb’s songs held up as well as ever, compact narratives powered by the wisdom that even small lives can carry big feelings. As familiar as radio has made “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman,” Webb reclaimed them convincingly Thursday. And for all his self-deprecation, Webb framed his better-than-he-claimed singing in remarkably effective piano playing and storytelling.
Collins followed, accompanied by longtime pianist Russell Walden, strumming a 12-string guitar and clad all in black, like Webb. Her voice was like her abundant hair, silvery and lengthy, as she showed off still-remarkable command of long notes.
Early on, she went Christmas-y and nostalgic with a cappella holiday favorites — “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Three Ships,” “Good King Wenceslas” and “Oh, Danny Boy” — spiced with stories. Then she returned to her 1960s-to-now singer-songwriter sweet spot — earlier she trademarked Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” her own anthem for decades — with Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust.” Then came stories of Greenwich Village, and her autobiographical “Mountain Girl in the City” matched Webb’s “Oklahoma Nights” for fond recollection.
She built her career on folk songs by others, as Tom Rush did, but Collins has modeled her own compositions more on European-classical art songs. Her touching “She’s A Lady” traced her mother’s life in tender terms from youth to decline, showing wisdom, acceptance, deep love and Sondheim-like economy, a peak in all ways and a showstopper. Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” followed but was by no means a step up from the peak Collins had just crafted and climbed. “In My Life” — the Beatles’ most nostalgic and loving song — was a sumptuous encore.