Stephen Stills and Judy Collins became lovers in 1968. “It was a terrible year for everyone else,” Stills remembered, Aug. 16 at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, at the first of the three New Jersey shows they will be presenting this year. (The others will be at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, Aug. 23, and BergenPAC in Englewood, Oct. 13.)
Their relationship didn’t last long. But their breakup inspired Stills’ most famous song, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Now, improbably, Stills, 72, and Collins, 78, are getting ready to release their first album together (Everybody Knows, due out Sept. 22 on her Wildflower label).
They performed with three backing musicians in Red Bank, and stayed onstage together throughout the show, except for four numbers where one or the other left the stage. (See the setlist below). They sang many songs in unison, including The Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” and Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”; at other times, Collins might sing backing vocals for Stills, or Stills might add lead guitar to a Collins song.
They’re not the most natural vocal partners. Stills is a rocker; Collins, a folkie. Stills is known for singing with gruff, commanding authority, Collins, with pristine clarity. Neither voice is what it used to be — Stills, in particular, has lost a lot of his power. But he still had some good moments, particularly on his solo numbers “Seen Enough” and “Treetop Flyer.” And Collins was positively dazzling on songs such as “Suzanne,” “Both Sides Now” and “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” They’re among the best known songs in her repertoire, but she made them sound fresh by playing around with the phrasing, speeding up and slowing down eccentrically, like a jazz singer might.
Musically, they made the biggest change to “Chelsea Morning,” performing Joni Mitchell’s sweet, innocent song with a clanking, heavily percussive arrangement — almost like something that Tom Waits would come up with.
They both told a lot of stories, and performed a number of songs that touched on their relationship, including Stills’ “Judy” and Collins’ “Houses.” One of the encores was Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon,” which Stills suggested Collins record for her 1968 album, Who Knows Where the Time Goes.
One of the great things about the show was the opportunity to bask in the love and affection that Stills and Collins still, clearly, have for each other. Another was to hear topical material such as “For What It’s Worth” (Stills’ 1967 Buffalo Springfield classic) and “Seen Enough” (from the 1999 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album, Looking Forward) in an era when their dire political warnings seem relevant.
Also, it’s hard to imagine any Stills or Collins fan not being thrilled by the opportunity to hear them sing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” together. They did it as the show’s final last encore, though, disappointingly, they performed only the final two parts — the section that begins with the “chestnut brown canary” line, and then the upbeat final section — and not the entire “suite.”
Here is the Red Bank show’s setlist:
“Handle With Care”
“So Begins the Task”
“River of Gold”
“Girl From the North Country”
“Seen Enough” (Collins offstage)
“Treetop Flyer” (Collins offstage)
“Both Sides Now” (Stills offstage)
“Suzanne” (Stills offstage)
“Who Knows Where the Time Goes”
“For What It’s Worth”
“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (excerpt)