In an NPR piece (click) about Steve Turner's book Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song you can listen to selected performances of the song, all moving. It would, however, be impossible to eclipse, for me, the performance by Joan Baez on Sunday evening in Bend, Oregon.
In my previous post I explained that her concert on August 16, 2009, was 40 years to the day from the set she did at Woodstock on August 16, 1969. I wondered if she would mention it. As the sold-out crowd lined up in front of the venue that was indeed a topic of conversation. A man standing in front of my cousin and me said he had heard Ms. Baez interviewed on the radio earlier that day and she said she isn't a sentimentalist about the past. She stayed true to that statement, commenting only in reference terms, i.e., "talk about 40 years ago. . ." during one song. She did not remind the crowd that Joe Hill and Sweet Sir Galahad -- which she sang for us -- were also gifts of song that early morning at Woodstock (videos from Washington D. C. in 2005, and audio in Italy 1970, respectively).
Joan Baez didn't need to mention Woodstock, as it turned out, because it was the mood undertone in the grassy bowl where we sat on low folding chairs squished closely together in order to accommodate everyone in an area too small for the size of the crowd (they printed extra tickets after selling all those initially prepared). A guy somewhere to my left called out that we'd all be married by the end of the evening. Where we didn't bond to that extreme we did join together in singing more than once during the evening, with Ms. Baez and the band even altering the setlist at one point to switch mid-song to Gracias a la vida for the audience to join her in the chorus (song link is truly exciting video of her live at Festival des Vieilles Charrues, France, in 2000).
Preceding Joan Baez there was a special appearance by Janis Ian (who I had seen in concert at the Portland Civic Auditorium in the early 80s). I wouldn't call Ms. Ian a "warm-up act" for anything after what she gave to us Sunday with the setting sun beaming right into her face. She was honest and funny as she addressed the crowd, and superb when she sang both Society's Child (video worth seeing from 2008) and At Seventeen (video from 1976). She returned to the stage later in the night to play piano while she and Joan Baez sang Jesse (video has audio of same duo).
Joan Baez's band was a group of brilliant and versatile musicians. I am sorry that I didn't write their names when she introduced them. One name I do remember. He is her son, Gabriel Harris, with whom she was pregnant when she performed at Woodstock. Her precious song Gabriel and Me is featured at the linked song along with a brief mother-son bio.
We stood and cheered in steadfast fashion for an encore, which she and the band graciously gave to us in spite of the concert beginning nearly an hour late. They did The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down (video is audio of someone's old record with a nice group of photos accompanying). We remained standing in the dark and were at once lost in individual memory and present in solidarity. The members of the band then left the stage and she set down her guitar. The blurry, grainy images captured by my camera -- but at least the audio is good! -- might allow you to get a sense of what it was like to have Joan Baez lead us in Amazing Grace, her final song of the night......
The NPR site I mentioned at the top of this post in reference to the book about the song Amazing Grace notes:
In her forward to Turner's book, Judy Collins says the song has the "power to transform" and to heal.
Many of the musicians Turner has talked to offer similar testimony to the sweet sound of a hymn that has become an heirloom.
"Something magical happens when they sing it," Turner says.
That pretty much says it all about the song specifically and the concert in general. It was an evening full of grace.
And it was amazing.