Performance: Peter, Paul and Mary
Peter, Paul and Mary play at a memorial for Matthew Shepard

Peter, Paul and Mary still magical.

It was a safe bet that Peter, Paul and Mary would break out the old stand-by crowd-pleaser, "Puff the Magic Dragon" at a concert in Laramie, Wyo., in remembrance of slain gay student Matthew Shepard. But never before had this children's song been so profound.

"We believe in Dragons. Then one day we learn that life is not all that sweet," Peter Yarrow said, referring to tragedies such as Shepard's death. "That's when dragons do go away."

The whole audience joined in singing the chorus.

As the crisp Wyoming sky had turned to a dark and chilly night, hundreds of candle-holders made way from a vigil for Shepard on the University of Wyoming campus to the school's large Arts and Sciences Auditorium for the performance. The memorial not only fell two days short of the one-year-anniversary of Shepard's death, but also kicked off Gay Awareness Week at UW and was on the eve of the second Shepard murder trial.

The spirit of the concert went down a road well-traveled for Yarrow, Noel "Paul" Stookey and Mary Travers, who have been mainstays in rock & roll political activism throughout their thirty-nine-year career. But the group seemed especially ardent on this night. The always affectionate trio constantly embraced and held hands, as they swept through nine songs before an intermission. The band spoke often of Shepard, his family and the community, Yarrow doing most of the talking, a rainbow-colored guitar strap wrapped around his back.

He opened up the second set by himself, with a tune by the late Phil Ochs, "There But For Fortune," which Yarrow noted he had changed the last lyric after a visit to the infamous buck fence where Shepard had been beaten, tied up and left for dead.

"Show me the gay man / hated and scorned / he was killed just for being the way he was born," Yarrow sang.

The crowd quickly leaped to its feet when Yarrow finished the song, his arms held tight to his chest in a self-embrace. With a warm smile, he extended his arms back to the cheering crowd, and mouthed the words, "I love you."

"It's like a wake, it doesn't have to be a funeral," Yarrow said of the show, prior to performing. "It's a time to rebuild, to restore, to renew." Though much of the show was earnest and introspective, it had some lighter moments. For Travers' solo segment, she riffed about ever-changing technology and the thin Laramie air that landed her in the hospital before the show.

"They have this tank of oxygen backstage that I've become fond of," she said, before launching into a thick and majestic rendition of "Home Is Where the Heart Is."

And the concert wasn't without at least a couple of favorites beyond "Puff." The group delivered with their John Denver cover, "Leaving on a Jet Plane," and Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," which they had made famous so long ago, and now had updated its purpose as they brought Shepard's parents, Dennis and Judy, on to the stage.

But the most poignant moment of the evening came when tiny flickers of light glowed once more during the trio's performance of "Light One Candle," as the audience ignited small, battery-operated candles handed out before the show. When the man sitting next to me noticed I didn't have a candle, he gave me his.

"Your story," he said, "won't be right without it."

(October 12, 1999)