Stills & Collins bring decades of activism to Revolution Hall
Even after 50 years of singing, songwriting and performing around the world, Judy Collins is best known for a 1969 song inspired by her arresting looks.
It's called "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," written by Stephen Stills and performed by Crosby, Stills & Nash — and that song is still a favorite of Collins' today.
The 78-year-old folk rock legend — who also is a social activist, author, filmmaker, industry mentor and storyteller — will please audiences with that enduring hit and plenty more during the pair's Portland concerts at Revolution Hall, May 6-7.
"We do some of his songs, some of mine, mix it up, do duets all the way through," Collins told the Tribune in a recent phone interview from her Hollywood hotel, while on tour with Stills performing songs from their first album together, "Stills & Collins," which was released last summer.
"We tell a lot of anecdotes, and have a great band," Collins says. "And we get to end with 'Judy Blue Eyes,' how about that."
Stills wrote the legendary love song to Collins right after he left Buffalo Springfield but before he joined David Crosby of the Byrds and Graham Nash of the Hollies to form the harmony-laden supertriumverate of Crosby, Stills and Nash.
The trio, joined intermittently by Stills' ex-Buffalo Springfield bandmate Neil Young, was an immediate success among both countercultural as well as mainstream record buyers and concert-goers.
If you're a classic rock fan trying to place Collins' role in music history, think Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman — the folk revival music of the early '60s. Collins was inspired by all of them, and often performed their music until she started recording her own — eventually playing backup guitar for Stills, whom she dated for two years.
The May performances at Revolution Hall are part of their tour, which marks the 50th anniversary of their relationship and the first time Stills and Collins have joined forces onstage.
Since her first album in 1961 and her first pop hit — a 1968 interpretation of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides, Now" — Collins has kept busy in the studio and on stage. Six of her albums have reached gold or platinum sales status, including one in 2015 and another the following year.
She's won three Grammy awards, including a 2017 award for best folk album for "Silver Skies Blue" with her writing partner Ari Hest.
The New York Times recently described her as the "ageless wild angel of pop." She's also appeared in HBO's "Girls," made '70s cameos on "The Muppet Show" and "Sesame Street," became an activist for suicide prevention after the death of her young son, and has written 10 books. Her latest, "Cravings: How I Conquered Food," from 2017, details her past struggles with bulimia and alcoholism.
A native of Seattle who's toured the Pacific Northwest quite often, Collins says she's never thought of slowing down: "Touring is my life. I've been on the road since I was 19. Last year I did 150 shows. Fifty of them were with Stephen, but the rest were my own concerts everywhere."
As for her youthful romance with Stills, Collins says it sprung from her awe of him as an artist.
"He's the most brilliant guitarist," she says. "The songs he writes are just divine. He does brilliant solos. I'm astonished every time I hear him play. That's why I fell for him in 1968. He's also awfully cute, but it was the music that did it. We still make music together, which is quite wonderful."
Collins, who says she's never run out of songwriting material, is constantly writing new songs — to keep it fresh for both her and her fans. In Portland, she'll debut two new songs, one of which she was just in the process of recording in late April, inspired by world events. One of her new songs, "River of Gold," is about the environment.
"They're ruining the planet," says Collins, who wears a small necklace from a fan inscribed with the word "Resist." "Everywhere you look, national parks are being decimated by the current administration."
The other new song is "My Name is Maria," which is about the "Dreamers" — the undocumented immigrant students born in the United States, seeking higher education. Collins sang the haunting melody over the phone, a capella: "My name is Maria. My daughter is a Dreamer. She shows that she is worrying, but she will have to leave. This land is made by dreamers. And children of those dreamers. We can't afford not to see and hope. What we have is hope."
Collins says the activism message running through many of her and Stills' songs isn't likely to catch anyone by surprise — it's just a continuation of what they've been doing for the past 50 years: "We've been talking about this in music — serious issues of what's gone wrong and what's gone right."
Music plays a powerful role in activism, she says. "It gives people the quiet in which they can think when listening to music that stirs them. If you get interested in a particular issue, then you get educated. It's kind of stimulant. It means you have to start reading and listening in a different way than we do with our ears closed."
Generations of protest songs have, indeed, shaped the political climate in past decades. While a lot has changed in the music industry, a lot also has remained true.
"The strength of a song, of a great song, is still the key," she says. "Maybe I'm bemused by this, but I really think it is overall the struggle to find great music, write great songs, write things that are pertinent, write things that seize your heart, motivate you as a performer. It's a very exciting adventure."
Judy Collins and Stephen Stills stop at Revolution Hall, 1300 S.E. Stark St., 8 p.m. Sunday, May 6 (sold out), and 8 p.m Monday, May 7. For tickets: www.revolutionhall.com. They'll also play at Hult Center in Eugene on Thursday, May 3, and Snoqualmie Casino in Snoqualmie, Washington, on Friday, May 4.
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