Many incredible acts have played Johnny D's over the decades.
But there's never been more talent crammed onto the club's tiny stage than at Thursday's Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation-sponsored benefit featuring Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Cockburn, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris.
The five artists are among the best singer-songwriters of the past quarter-century. And it was a thrill to see them, sitting shoulder to shoulder, swapping songs and stories as part of their weeklong Campaign for a Landmine Free World tour.
Each individual performance was wonderful. Harris complained of a cold, but that didn't hamper her soaring vocals. Earle, calling himself the night's "designated loud guy," provided a rowdy, honky-tonk edge. Cockburn, Griffith and Carpenter (with majestic help from her Boston-based guitarist, Duke Levine) each played original songs that reminded listeners of their poetic abilities.
Better yet were the moments they contributed to each other's work, as when Griffith and Carpenter lent lovely harmonies to a song by Harris or when Cockburn added rich bottleneck guitar.
Unfortunately, considering the dream team of talent onstage, there weren't enough of those magical shared moments. Tears welled up in Carpenter's eyes when Earle strummed a quiet ballad, but more often than not, each singer sat stoically, when one wished they would move up to a microphone and join in.
As a result, the concert wasn't nearly as intimate as it could have been. Instead of a hootenanny, it was a song swap.
In keeping with the purpose of the benefit (which raised nearly $ 150,000 for the campaign to aid victims of land mines and outlaw future use), Cockburn played the haunting "Mines of Mozambique," which addresses the shocking ramifications of these hidden explosives. In "This Part of You," Griffith sang of war-torn Vietnam, inspired by a recent visit. And Carpenter brought a hush over the room with "John Doe No.24," her heart-rending tale of a blind, deaf mental patient.
Finally, after 90 minutes, the event came alive when Griffith - showing her folkabilly roots - led the crowd of 310 (plus many eavesdroppers listening from the sidewalk outside) in a rousing "If I Had a Hammer."
At last, things began to jell.
It reached a higher height, with the encore, Earle's "Christmas in Washington." Finally, all the performers sang together with gusto.
And, finally, the event shifted from five memorable solo performances into a one-of-a-kind happening.
Johnny D's had never seen a night like this. On stage were five world-class talents, sitting side by side, swapping songs and baring their souls about the crisis of an estimated 100 million land mines still buried in 68 countries. For the small Davis Square club, this was a milestone night - and the room's promoter, Dana Westover, said that President Clinton called one of the organizers to request a tape of the evening's music.
Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Bruce Cockburn helped raise more than $100,000 at this Concert for a Landmine Free World. The proceeds came fromxr tickets ranging from $250 to $2,500, and from the sale of scarves handmade by Cambodian women victimized by land mines.
The event - one of five that these artists did this week in the Northeast - was sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. Its founder, Bobby Muller - a land-mine victim who uses a wheelchair - gave an impassioned speech about how 138 countries have signed a treaty banning land mines, yet it still hasn't been signed by the United States, Russia, or China.
The night was given added significance by the personal observations from the artists - many of whom had been to land-mine-plagued countries and seen the damage firsthand. Griffith reported on a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia last January, then played a new, unrecorded song from it, ''Travelling Through This Part of You,'' dedicated to her ex-husband, Eric Taylor, a Vietnam veteran. ''Where were you amongst the madness on the streets of Saigon?'' she sang. ''You were an American boy whose innocence was lost here.'' It was a trip, Griffith said, that ''changed my life.''
Other artists also chose to debut new songs at this coffeehouse-style gathering, but the most powerful moment was when Cockburn sang ''The Mines of Mozambique,'' a wrenching tale of the ''scarred, blinded faces and those maimed limbs'' that he saw during a visit to that country. Some of the audience was in tears as he sang of ''the wealth of amputation waiting in the ground'' and of native craftsmen making prosthetics for children.
Many of the artists had colds, though as Harris said, ''Here I am sneezing and wheezing, but for a good cause.'' She was so sick that she didn't make it to an after-show reception at the Gallery Bershad a block away, but, miraculously, she still sang like a goddess. She did some poignant tunes from her new album, ''Red Dirt Girl,'' and added her famously angelic vocal harmonies elsewhere.
Carpenter delivered her own highlights by premiering a new song about looking for love, ''Late for Your Life,'' and her classic ''John Doe No. 24,'' about an Illinois man who languished in mental hospitals and was buried in a pauper's grave. Carpenter was ably accompanied by Boston guitarist Duke Levine from her touring band.
Keeping the two-hour show from becoming too somber was the sheer exhilaration of the performances - the intimacy of the club brought out the best in each artist - and the comic-relief from maverick Earle. ''If we were a hockey team, I'd be the enforcer,'' said Earle, who crisply sang ''Hometown Blues,'' about revisiting his hometown near San Antonio and realizing that ''everybody had forgotten me except the police, who gave me a place to stay.''
The show climaxed with Griffith leading a sing-along to Pete Seeger's ''If I Had a Hammer,'' then Earle had the last word with the moving ''Christmas in Washington,'' with the verse, ''Come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now.'' Thus did this transformational, two-hour night come to an uplifting close.