Bridge School Benefit love
In 1985, Pegi Young (Neil's lady) helped to start a school in the San Francisco Bay Area for local children with severe physical and speech impairments (their son Ben is affected by cerebral palsy). The Bridge School helps to remove expressive barriers for these children through augmentative and alternative means of communication with the world around them.
The nice thing about being associated with a respected member of the musical community is that The Bridge School received the seed money needed to open, as well as ongoing financial support for the last 20 years, with an annual star-studded, quality benefit show organized by Neil & Pegi. The Bridge School Benefit has had some amazing artists over the past 20 years.
I've gone to as many of these shows as I could afford, and have seen more phenomenal acoustic performances than I can even remember. This year it was a happy & nostalgic coincidence that our family vacation to California to see family lined up with the 20th annual benefit show weekend. I was able to stay one extra night so that I could attend the Sunday night show after seeing the lineup this year: Devendra Banhart, Gillian Welch, Death Cab For Cutie, Trent Reznor, Foo Fighters, Brian Wilson, Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, and Neil Young.
There was not one artist going into this show that I didn't want to see -- we all know that often with festivals there are one or two duds that you could care less about, but for me I was curious to see everyone, so I spent the 15 minute set-change breaks running to get what I needed so I could get back to catch each artist's performance. As I started the beautiful, warm, sunny afternoon at Shoreline I had a space on the lawn, then some kind and fantastic stranger walked up to me and gave me his single ticket in the seats for unknown reasons. So that was a huge bonus and one of those fine things that just reaffirms your faith in humanity. Thanks "Tom" (from your e-ticket)!!
After the usual 2-song opening dealie with Neil and Pegi Young, Devendra Banhart took the stage with his newly-christened band "The Bridge" (wonder how he came up with that?) which included Scottish folk musician Bert Jansch on guitar. Banhart was more rocking than some of his folksier and warbly works I've heard off his latest album Cripple Crow ("Quedate Luna," "Luna de Margarita"). He seemed to channel a bit more rock, in the vein of The Black Crowes, and overall I liked him. He looked a bit overwhelmed with the massive crowd -- I'd like to see him in a smaller setting.
Gillian Welch is a giant of the bluegrass/country/folk scene, and I get the feeling that she is very well-respected among her musician cohorts. Regrettably, I have not been super familiar with her work beyond her collaborations with Ryan Adams and her contributions to the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack (I do a mean lullaby rendition of "Go To Sleep Little Baby" from that collection, a song that she performed at the show with the help of longtime musical partner David Rawlings and Petra Haden). She was confident and rocking, with a gospel tune in the mix, as well as a handful of her own songs and I believe a Neil Young cover (maybe "Country Girl," it's hazy).
Death Cab For Cutie may have converted me from hesitantly standing on the sidelines into a full-contact player/supporter/fan. I thought their set was really lovely and sounded great. Their cover of Graham Nash's "Military Madness" with Neil Young was fantastic, and Ben Gibbard started the show with a solo "I Will Follow You Into The Dark," which is an undeniably poignant & beautiful tune. Some of the other song choices may have been a little questionable (a note about the Bridge School shows: children from the school sit on the stage as a special audience), such as the "second most depressing song" in their catalog, "What Sarah Said" ("There's no comfort in the waiting room, just nervous pacers bracing for bad news . . . who's going to watch you die?").
There was a bit of discomfort (or should I say, a sense of heightened awareness) listening to those lyrics being sung in that setting. Every year there is a conflict that I see of artistic freedom: the artists aren't there to do a kiddie show, and yet there those little ones are, sitting there watching with their parents, ears and eyes wide open.
Speaking of that very conflict, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) was up next. And he summarily blew my mind, moreso than any artistic act I have seen in the last several years. I cannot express how transfixed I was. I have been an unabashed Nine Inch Nails fan since I discovered Pretty Hate Machine in the mid '90s, a disc that I think still sounds fresh and innovative and lyrically honest (brutally so). I wasn't sure how Reznor would possibly fit into this acoustic setting. But he gets major, major props from me for meeting the challenge and using the opportunity of the setting to try something new. Get this: he comes on stage with a string quartet and a piano. The only percussion is little egg shakers. He has arranged 5 of his songs into orchestral pieces, and it was freaking *#%!! amazing. (AUDIO HERE)
He started out at the piano with a reinvention of "Something I Can Never Have," almost unrecognizable at the start but then those familiar lyrics kick in and all that raging earnestness and nihilism is there, floating atop gorgeous strings and various dischordant sounds from striking the inside of the piano. He stands in front of the mike for the second song, holding the shakers and kicks into a steady rhythm. Not sure where he's heading and then he whispers the opening lines: "Hey pig..." Fantastic. He also completely nailed "The Fragile" and "Hurt" (little blurry video clip here that gives you the idea). Mr. Reznor goes down in my book as an absolute genius for that set and I wish he would do a full tour like that. Amen for continuing creativity and not being content with staying musically static.
I seriously could have just seen Reznor's set and gone home happy, but luckily there was more to come. I've never seen the Foo Fighters live before but thought that their set was great. Dave Grohl is an affable frontman ("Don't invite me to your party," he warned, after "clumsy Dave!" tripped over a microphone cable). After starting with "Times Like These," they performed a nice rarity that Dave wrote on the spot a few years ago during a BBC interview, "Skin and Bones." Even though the set was acoustic, Grohl headbanged his way through some ferocious strumming on the acoustic guitar, and drummer Taylor Hawkins tightly bashed and banged his way along. I thought it was notable to see Pat Smear perform with them again (he's a bit of a legend in my book) and Petra Haden was sizzling on the violin and mandolin.
The bittersweet version of closing song "Everlong" was riveting -- I never really listened to the lyrics before but ouch, they're good and really shine in that arrangement. Dave recounted the story of a few years back at the Bridge School Benefit when they performed "Everlong" for the first time in such a stripped setting and Dave returned to his trailer and cried like a baby after it was over.
Brian Wilson was a bit puzzling and disconcerting. I was greatly anticipating his set, hoping for some of that same acoustic creativity that Reznor displayed. I know he's not in the best health (I believe he has suffered a stroke?), and the bright and loud performance tried its best to camouflage that through amped up backing vocals, a huge band, and lots of assists on his microphone. Wilson seemed to often get lost in space or stare off into the distance. He was wearing a long-sleeved baggy white t-shirt and blue running pants, looking as if he had just come in from a sedate jog, or maybe practicing tai-chi in the park. He just ran through the standards, which were fun and I admit I sang along to pretty much every word, but something was lacking overall in the energy of authenticity. Neil Young joined Wilson to play organ on "Good Vibrations" which was full and gorgeous.
Pearl Jam took the stage next for their 7th year performing at Bridge School, and it is always great to see them. Perhaps I am biased, but I love how they dig deep for a great set of eclectic tunes. They started with an impassioned cover of Dylan's "Masters of War," followed by a soaring acoustic version of "Gone" off the new album. I was mightily hoping for "Parachutes," which they had busted out Saturday night but it was not to be. The full setlist was:
(AUDIO FROM BOTH NIGHTS HERE)
Masters of War
Around The Bend (hurrah! great song)
Thin Air (another hurrah! video @ end)
Throw Your Hatred Down (with Neil Young, WATCH VIDEO)
Every time that Pearl Jam plays the Bridge School, they dedicate a special song to a Bridge student named Maricor who has become a friend of the band. She always looks so embarassed, yet overjoyed. Saturday night it was "Crazy Mary," and the night I was there it was the sweet gem "Thin Air" ("and I know she's reached my heart, in thin air"). PJ honored another song request from one of the male students who, as Ed said, "likes it a bit rougher." He then aggressively launched into "Lukin," a one-minute hard punk song from 1996's No Code. I laughed. The closer with Neil Young (from their joint 1995 album Mirror Ball) was impassioned.
Dave Matthews Band bored me to tears. I'd say I am a DMB fan, in the sense that I have their albums and they've written some crackingly good tunes over the years. But I felt his performance was just so standard and a little too indulgently jam-heavy. It was like your average DMB concert, instead of taking advantage of the setting to bust out some rarities or other acoustic gems. The songs they picked were just the radio hits, "Crash," "Everyday," "Jimi Thing," etc. Each was stretched into 10-15 minute jams, during which I found my mind wandering. If I could have handpicked a better set (presumptuous! I know!) I would have voted for things like: "Say Goodbye/#41" "Pay For What you Get," "Busted Stuff" or "Lie In Our Graves" and a few covers. Neil Young joined him at the end for an almost 30-minute version of "Down By The River."
How was Neil Young's closing set? Rumored to be with Elton John? Donno. My parts were freezing (toes numb, nose cold) and I was exhausted so I actually bailed early. I'd seen Neil already several times during the day with the other artists and sleep beckoned to me mightily.
Here are a few select tunes from Bridge School years past (links re-upped 11/12/06):
2005: Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee - Jerry Lee Lewis
2004: Hey Jude - Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Eddie Vedder et al
2004: Harvest Moon - Neil Young with Eddie Vedder
2003: I Am Mine - Eddie Vedder
(the album version of this has been one of my favorite PJ songs lately)
2003: Teardrop (Massive Attack cover) - Incubus
2002: Dear Chicago - Ryan Adams, night 1
2002: La Cienega Just Smiled - Ryan Adams, night 2
2002: Street Spirit - Thom Yorke
2002: After The Gold Rush (Neil Young cover) - Thom Yorke
2001: All Along The Watchtower (Dylan cover) - Dave Matthews Band
1999: Nothing As It Seems - Pearl Jam
1999: Stay (U2 cover) - Smashing Pumpkins
1999: God Only Knows - Brian Wilson
1998: I Shall Be Released (Dylan cover) - Neil Young, Sarah McLachlan & Phish
1994: Let Me Sleep - Pearl Jam
1993: Splendid Isolation - Warren Zevon
1992: I Am A Patriot (Steve Van Zandt cover) - Pearl Jam
How 'bout a zip? ALL THESE SONGS, ZIPPED
Some of the best news from the event was that in honor of the 20th anniversary, the Bridge School plans to offer a selections of songs from that last two decades for download on iTunes starting November 14. If they offer anything from Trent Reznor's piece de resistance, I will download them as quick as lightning. It will be interesting to see what they select to make available, they have ample high-quality fodder.
Great music for a great cause, gorgeous day. Yay Neil & Pegi!
WATCH: PEARL JAM, THIN AIR (should work now)