By Jack Sasner
BAR HARBOR — Judy Collins has evolved as a musician since her first days in the politically charged folk scene of 1960s New York City, but she certainly hasn’t separated her music from politics.
She thrilled a sold-out crowd at the Criterion Theatre Friday with songs and stories of friendship and struggle over the years.
She sang her latest single, “Dreamers,” a cappella and without introduction. The studio release of the song was July 6, exactly a week before the Bar Harbor performance.
“Dreamers” is the first-person story of an immigrant named Maria, whose daughter fears deportation in an uncertain political landscape.
“This land was made of dreamers, and children of those dreamers,” she sings in the chorus. “We came here for democracy and hope, now all we have is hope.”
The song is certainly a reference to the DREAM Act, a bipartisan bill that would provide a path to U.S. citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as young children.
Her lone voice reverberating off the theater walls, presenting such politically charged ideas was a haunting and devastatingly beautiful experience. The audience responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.
The opener for the show was Jersey City’s Ari Hest, a singer-songwriter who seemed to be unknown by many when he first walked out on stage, but earned roaring applause after his 40-minute set.
After his opening song, Hest explained his dramatic trip up from Boston for the show. Outside of Ellsworth, just two hours before the concert, he drove over a nail.
He was able to laugh at the situation, thanking the staff of the Criterion Theatre for retrieving him in time to perform, before starting “The Weight,” an original tune of his 2009 album, “Twelve Mondays.”
Hest’s aggressive fingerpicking and powerful vocal delivery was enough to captivate the theater, now at capacity, without any sort of backing band.
About halfway through his set, he sang Paul Simon’s 1975 hit, “Still Crazy After All These Years,” in which Simon reflects on his past after meeting an old friend. The cover fit perfectly in the personal and retrospective tone of the whole night.
Hest’s subject matter is often autobiographical and light hearted, including accounts of a family gathering and his recent adopting of a dog named George Harrison.
His experienced musicianship and witty banter surely made those in the crowd who did not know him fans for years to come.
Just before nine o’clock, after a brief intermission, the house lights went dim, sparking excitement in the crowd. Over the sound system, an announcement from Criterion staff that the show was “completely smartphone free” was greeted with applause.
Moments later, the entire crowd stood for a standing ovation as Judy Collins entered from stage left.
Before saying a word, Collins, accompanied by her musical director Russell Walden, began to play “Song for Judith (Open The Door).” With the chorus, “Open the door and come on in, I’m so glad to see you my friend,” the song was very fitting to introduce the personal and intimate show ahead.
Collins stood center stage in an extravagant blue dress, wielding a 12-string guitar. Next to her was Walden sitting behind a grand piano. The only other thing that stood in front of the large, exposed brick wall of the 1932 Criterion stage was a vase of red roses in between the two musicians.
In between the first few songs, Collins’ incredibly witty banter filled the room with tremendous laughter.
“Both Sides Now,” a song originally written by Joni Mitchell, and “John Rielly,” a traditional folk song, brought a more serious tone before “Dreamers.”
The later part of the set became more focused on the early days of Collins’ career. She contextualized songs by telling stories of her early days in the music industry, and the people she met along the way.
She described one “homeless” man in great detail, who she met in the 1960’s Greenwich Village folk scene. She described him as “pathetic” and ventured he would “never make it in the music industry.” She explained with a smile she had been describing Bob Dylan, and went on to cover his 1963 song, “Masters of War.”
She continued to tell stories of her friendship with Dylan, without the snark, explaining how after a 1963 party in Woodstock, N.Y., she sat outside his door and eavesdropped on him writing one of his biggest hits, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” She then went on to perform it, inviting the crowd to sing along to the choruses. Almost everyone in attendance took the invitation willingly.
Collins said she helped persuade Leonard Cohen that he should sing his own music, rather than just writing for other performers. Cohen convinced her to write some of her own songs.
After more stories and more songs, Ari Hest joined Collins and Walden on the stage.
Hest and Collins told the story of how they met at a festival in New York City that Collins was headlining. She happened to hear Hest’s set (he was one of eight openers) and invited him to open up another show for her.
“One show turned into five, five turned into fifty,” Hest said with a big smile. Six years later, the two continue to tour together, and have released a collaborative album that was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Folk Album.
“That was Ari’s first Grammy nomination and my first in 40 years. What kept them away for so long?” joked Collins.
They went on to play the title track from said album, “Silver Skies Blue.” The two accomplished musicians share a musical bond that cannot be faked.
They ended the set, which lasted just under an hour and a half, with Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” to many audience members’ delight. After a standing ovation, Collins, Walden and Hest returned to the stage for an encore, performing Ian Tyson’s composition Collins would make a hit in 1969, “Someday Soon.”
“[Collins] is so talented at finding good songwriters,” said Maureen Walsh, 70, of Bangor, “and complementing their songs with her beautiful voice.” Walsh, who first saw Collins perform in 1972, considers her an inspiration. “I have friends my age who were not willing to make the one-hour trip to see the show,” said Walsh, “At 79, the fact that Collins is still touring the world in truly inspirational. She’s found her purpose in life, she just keeps going!”