Amazing Grace

Deniece Williams, Emotions

at Sunset Junction, Saturday, August 18

It was the bitterest of ironies. Deniece Williams opened her Sunset Junction set with an a cappella version of “God Is Amazing,” punctuated with sista-girl testifying, only to tumble from the stage in a fall that left her lying on the ground for a good 10 or 15 minutes as the hushed crowd wondered how badly she’d been hurt. Minutes crawled as her sons rushed tearfully from backstage, dramatically hugged, lead the crowd in prayer and sang gospel songs. Eventually, she was given a mike, and she joked, “I am fine. I’m not leaving here till I sing something.” And from the ground, she performed a stellar version of “?’Cause You Love Me, Baby,” insane high notes and all. The crowd went nuts. Then she was lifted back onstage, hobbling onto a chair where she sat and sang the hell out of “Silly” – hair askew, clear grimace of pain on her face (she kept rubbing her head) and tears flowing.

It wasn’t just a textbook case of “the show must go on” but a sublime lesson in performance — she funneled her obvious physical discomfort into the song’s words of emotional anguish. The result was transcendent, and she climaxed with gospel fervor. Following “Black Butterfly,” which she introduced with an apropos speech about the necessity of hardship and obstacles in life, she asked the crowd, “Two more [songs]? Is that okay? Cause I’m sitting up here with an ankle the size of Baltimore.” But the pain won out, and after a lilting version of “Free,” she was rolled from the stage via wheelchair and shuttled to the hospital. It’s hard to imagine a better overall performance (magnificent talent, unscripted drama, barreling forward through pain) all weekend.

Earlier, the Emotions had won the packed crowd over with hits everyone knew (“Best of My Love,” “Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love,” “Boogie Wonderland,” “Flowers”) and classics from their Stax days (the Isaac Hayes–penned “Show Me How”). Their joy in performing was obvious — the very animated Sheila broke out every old-school ’80s dance except the Running Man — even if their voices were sometimes ragged and poorly miked. Still, their harmonies were often as thrilling as ever, with the combined voices somehow filling in what the sisters might have individually lost to time.

—Ernest Hardy

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