Songwriter and singer Judy Collins is a living legend.
In 2001, folk superstar and pioneer Judy Collins started the Wildflower Festival, partly in celebration of her new label of the same name, but also to showcase folk music for fans as well as those fresh to the genre. This traveling road show filled with famous names from the world of traditional music played from coast to coast, spreading the evangelical joy that Collins and her cronies first experienced over forty years ago in the coffee shops and beat clubs of the emerging urban folk scene. Her first festival shows consisted of Woodstock veteran Richie Havens, '70s songbird Janis Ian, Roger "The Byrds" McGuinn, Tom Paxton, and Leon Redbone. In 2002, Arlo Guthrie, son of the legendary Woody "This Land is Your Land" Guthrie, was added to the bill as a special guest. By this past March 2003, the new lineup consisted of Tom Rush, Eric Anderson, and the anarchic Arlo. Filmed at Humphrey's by the Bay in San Diego, California, this 90-minute concert presentation, offered for the first time on DVD, gives us a chance to hear several divergent artists all at the peak of their form. Collins is a careful, crystal diva, her voice as powerful and passionate as ever. Rush is a rough and tumble teddy bear, at ease making the audience laugh as well as think. Anderson is the moody minstrel of the pack, looking like he just walked off the hardest of reality's road and onto a stage to sing about it. And then there's Guthrie, a jester with a sensitive, serious soul underneath. Separately and together, they perform songs from the foundational period of protest music, when songwriter took pen to paper to not only change the tune of things, but the world as well. So grab a seat and savor the mellow moments of Judy Collins: Wildflower Festival.
Fans of folk music and the early '60s Greenwich Village scene will probably find Judy Collins: Wildflower Festival to be a rewarding, if a little disorienting DVD presentation. It's not because of the acts, per se. Collins does invite some traditional tune heavyweights to reminisce and recreate a kinder, gentler acoustic music along the shores of the Pacific Ocean. But the song selection and overall stage show will leave the knowledgeable unsatisfied and the uninitiated confused. People not familiar with Arlo Guthrie will wonder why he chooses to spend ten minutes on a dumb as dirt poem about mooses. People who know his work will wonder where "Alice's Restaurant" or other classic Guthrie song stories are. Tom Rush is introduced as a pioneer and entrepanuer of the folk scene, but wouldn't we have preferred he give us a version of his classic song "No Regrets"? (Heck, even Midge Ure of the British New Wave electronic band Ultravox did a cover of this great melodic bit of melodrama.) Instead, Rush runs through a gibberish baby talk tyke's tune and spends far too much time on a disjointed train chantey. Perhaps the most disturbing presence (but equally enigmatic and vastly more interesting than the rest) is Eric Anderson. Looking like Bruce Campbell after a few hard years in drug rehab and a South Carolina chain gang, Anderson takes the stage like a shaky recovering alcoholic and proceeds to cast a wonderful gloom over the proceedings. He does offer versions of his better remembered songs ("Blue River"), but then takes a tangent to explore a rather redundant rave he wrote with Lou Reed (?) called "You Can't Relive the Past." Eric didn't need to issue this harmonious reminder. His fellow folkies left their legacy at the door for this performance.
It's hard to hate what these talented people do, though, since they generally do it so very well. Collins is incredibly controlled and proficient onstage, moving her music along joyously with minimal accompaniment or complaint. Her sets are the real highlight of the disc (except for her weird 7/8 time version of the Joni Mitchell classic "Both Sides Now"—a song she made a hit over 30 years ago and that deserves better). Those who forgot that Collins had the definitive hit with Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" will be reminded, rather chillingly, of that fact when the Tin Pan Alley classic comes cooing from between Judy's fragile lips. But the onset of such oldies is the exception to this melodic showcase, like a recital of filler cuts from the crooners' long discographies. Even the group encore, which consists of real winners ("City of New Orleans," "Thirsty Boots") and a terrible bit of butchery on the Beatles ballad "In My Life," seems incomplete, as if this finale was just one mega-hit away from hitting a concert homerun. This is part of the problem with Judy Collins: Wildflower Festival as a musical experience and a DVD. One can't help but get the feeling that it could have been so much more. There is lots of onstage banter from the performers, name/song dropping and checking that grows irritatingly tiresome once you realize (a) those people are not appearing and (b) you won't be hearing those songs. Also, as said before, classics from the appearing artists themselves are overlooked for goofy old blues and Elvis tunes. As an easy listening laid back bit of beautiful music, it's a spectacular performance piece, but as a lesson in what made folk music the powerful personal and political statement of the early '60s Judy Collins: Wildflower Festival is all rose colored cantatas.
Thankfully, Collins is along to provide some perspective on the abundant DVD extras. First we are treated to a chirpy, cheerful commentary track by Collins that tries to fill in the blanks left by the lack of real meat in the song lists by the performers. Though she can be incredibly redundant (she repeats many of the stories from her enclosed interview material as part of her narrative), she can also be very insightful and anecdotal. She has some wonderful stories about the start of the folk movement in America, but the commentary as a whole is really an oral history of Judy's life and career. She ignores the people onscreen and one gets the sense that this was a track recorded and then edited, spliced into portions of the DVD's running time to offer Collins' viewpoint on selected personal issues. On the second disc, we are treated to a series of interviews, each one offering their own special tidbits. It's here we learn about Rush and his hit "No Regrets" (the song is "putting his kids through college," he says), Guthrie and the continuation of his family's famous musical lineage (his children are all part of show business), and Anderson's spiritual quests and songwriting theories. In many ways, the material here offers a more comprehensive vision of these peoples' importance to folk music and the scene than the timid time they spend onstage. We also get a nice set of biographies and a very comprehensive Judy Collins discography to explore. Topped off with a rather thin photo gallery, the bonus features are a nice way to fill out a pleasant (if perfunctory) DVD concert package. As for sound and vision, well, it couldn't be better. The image is full screen from a video master, and it is virtually defect free. No halos or flares. As for the sound, we are given the choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or 2.0 "HiFi" Stereo. Both are excellent, with good separation and immersion. You do get the feeling of being at the show itself.
Judy Collins: Wildflower Festival is a reminder that all musical gatherings don't have to be mosh pit filled, lifestyle orientation pledge fests. It reveals that good music, played well, will always find an audience willing to sit back, slow down, and just listen. And what a listen it is.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Judy Collins
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