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What happened when Diana Ross sang 'Amazing Grace' on opening night at the Hollywood Bowl

What happened when Diana Ross sang 'Amazing Grace' on opening night at the Hollywood Bowl
Diana Ross, pictured in an undated file photo, performed Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl. She didn't allow The Times to photograph the concert. (Associated Press)

Nobody at the Hollywood Bowl needed to know the title of Diana Ross’ show to get an idea of what to expect.

Called “Diana Ross Sings Memories,” Saturday’s concert officially opened the Bowl’s summer season — which, as always, meant an evening of nostalgia geared to the middle-aged folks whose subscriptions pay the bills at Los Angeles’ most iconic venue.

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In recent years, classic rockers including Steely Dan and the Moody Blues have played opening night.

And here Ross, backed by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under the direction of conductor Thomas Wilkins, looked back to the 1960s and ’70s in assured renditions of hits she recorded on her own and with the Supremes.

“See if you remember this one,” she said as the musicians in formal wear revved up the vintage Motown groove of “You Can’t Hurry Love.”

Needless to say, those in the crowd knew when to start singing along.

Yet as neatly as Saturday’s program kept with local tradition — before Ross took the stage, Wilkins and his group ran through John Williams’ durable theme from “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” — the 74-year-old pop veteran seemed eager to dig deeper than was strictly necessary.

She was still mining memories, all right, just not the same old ones.

You could tell right away that Ross was up to something different when — in a break from the vast majority of her gigs on the road and in Las Vegas, where she performs semi-regularly at the Wynn resort — she began her 70-minute set with a song other than “I’m Coming Out.”

Instead of that exuberant disco jam, Ross sang the churchy “He Lives in You,” known to many for its use in the “Lion King” musical, with the assistance of more than a dozen backup vocalists wearing black choir robes. (Ross herself emerged in a sequined orange gown with a ruffled train — one of several characteristically splashy costumes you could see for yourself if the singer hadn’t refused The Times’ request to photograph Saturday’s concert.)

And though she went on to do classics including “Upside Down” and “Touch Me in the Morning,” “He Lives in You” wasn’t the only rarity Ross performed at the Bowl, where four glittering chandeliers hung over the stage.

As she sauntered slowly from one end of the space to the other — the relatively restrained result, she said, of a recent broken ankle — Ross sang “If We Hold on Together,” a sentimental ballad from the animated “Land Before Time” movie, of all things.

She also skipped “Ease on Down the Road,” her signature number from “The Wiz,” in favor of the film’s “Home,” which she gave a grandly dramatic reading that demonstrated how closely intertwined her acting and singing skills are.

But the unexpected showstopper was Ross’ very moving performance of “Amazing Grace.”

Singing with a kind of mournful determination — and breaking from the song’s familiar melody to find surprising blue notes — she tapped into an earthly despair not often thought of in connection with this most polished of superstars.

What inspired her to go there is anyone’s guess.

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Ross spoke only a few times Saturday, and then basically to thank the audience for coming and to introduce her band and the orchestra.

“I guess you can’t stand up,” she said to the seated instrumentalists as they vamped on “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” near the end of the program.

But the emotion she summoned felt ancient and true — the vivid residue of some distant episode too painful to forget.

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