By Brian Wise
The Bridge School Benefit
Shoreline Amphitheater, California – Saturday October 25, 2014
The two-day 28th Bridge School Benefit concert kicked off on Saturday with some heavyweight headliners including Soundgarden, Tom Jones, Nora Jones’ Puss N Boots, Pearl Jam and, of course, Neil and Pegi Young who initiated the annual event to raise money the Bridge School to help individuals with severe speech and physical impairments.
While this year’s line-up didn’t have some of the heavy hitters of past years – such as Tom Waits, David Bowie, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith – it still presents a great array of talent at great value amazing value for a great cause. It also seemed to have the largest crowd most people had ever seen there. (My lawn ticket cost just over US$31 plus charges, which became even better value when some lovely people sitting next to me gave me a surplus dinner they had ordered!).
What turned out to be a nine-hour concert event began with rumours and speculation and ended in triumph. There were rumours amongst younger fans about what surprise guest artists might appear (It turned out that Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell sat in with Pearl Jam and Lukas Nelson appeared with Neil).
Then there was speculation about how Neil and Pegi would publicly handle their recent breakup – and that came down to what you read into the songs they performed in their respective sets and a few of Pegi’s on stage remarks.
In the end, the evening was dominated by the music and the cause that it supported – and also by regular updates on the score in the fourth game of the World Series playoff between the San Francisco Giants (11) and Kansas City Royals (4). (Only in America can you have a world championship that doesn’t include any other nations!).
Perhaps, the essence of the event was best summed up later in the evening by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who dedicated several songs to some of the Bridge School students – sitting at the back at the stage in full view – and talked about how the band had developed a personal interest in and relationship with them. There were plenty of film clips and on stage mentions of the charity during the evening but Vedder made it even more personal. It would have been hard not to be moved by his words.
The show opened right on schedule at five o’clock with Pegi Young introducing it with Ben Young introducing ‘my dad and my friend, Neil Young’ who performed simple acoustic versions of ‘Sugar Mountain’ and ‘I Am A Child.’ Young then made way for a procession of acts, starting with Pegi Young and given up to half an hour each.
No doubt you could read a lot into the choice of songs for Pegi’s set with her band The Survivors (including the legendary Spooner Oldham). Young previewed some songs from her brand new fourth album Lonely in A Crowded Room including ‘Walking On A Tightrope,’ ‘Better Livin’ Through Chemicals’ (an anti-pharmaceutical company song), ‘Feel Just Like A Memory’ and Oldham’s ‘Lonely Women Make Good Lovers’ (for ‘all the lonely sisters’). Read into it what you will.
Band Of Horses were abbreviated into brief 20 minute set before Norah Jones arrived with Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper for their set as Puss N Boots, the highlight of which was Neil Young joining them for ‘Down By The River.’
After explaining that Soundgarden’s songs were never written for an acoustic setting, Chris Cornell and colleagues proved the opposite with songs such as ‘Fell on Black Days,’ ‘Black Hole Sun’ and others sounding impressive in that mode.
“Is that the Tom Jones,” asked a woman in the crowd near me as the Welsh legend took the stage. I wondered if she was expecting a young contestant from The Voice who shares the same name – after all the Tom Jones is now 74!
If Jones seemed an unlikely act to follow Soundgarden he soon allayed any concerns with a tremendously powerful half hour that included the hits (‘Green, Green, Grass of Home,’ ‘Delilah’ and ‘It’s Not Unusual’) as well as songs from his two recent Ethan Johns-produced albums Praise & Blame and Spirit In The Room (both highly under-rated).
The highlights were the traditional ‘Run On’ (taught to him by Elvis Presley) and a wonderful version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower Of Song.’ While everyone loved the hits, Jones is in magnificent voice and definitely heading in the right direction on his recent albums, as his voice is perfect for the gospel/soul/blues songs.
As a sidelight, when I explained that Jones recently sang at the Australian Rules Grand Final in Melbourne it seemed to make no impression whatsoever on those around me, though they were mildly interested in the fact that people had complained about him performing ‘Delilah’ on the grounds that it glorified domestic violence.
“This is my first time (at Bridge School),” said Jones. “But this will not be my last.”
Brian Wilson was making his third appearance at the Bridge and his special guest was Beach Boy colleague Al Jardine. To be fair to Wilson, he has an incredible catalogue of songs and it is terrific to see him still performing (and I can only presume that he enjoys it).
However, Wilson is supported by a tremendous backing band, The Wonderrmints, who are able to gloss over his shortcomings. Of course, everyone loved ‘California Girls’ which kicked off the set – followed by a very shaky version of ‘Heroes and Villains,’ ‘God Only Knows, ‘I Get Around and, finally, ‘Fun, Fun Fun’ (during which Wilson got up from his piano and walked off stage).
The highlight of the set, however, was definitely Neil Young’s appearance for ‘California Saga,’ sung by Jardine (who also wrote it), from the under-rated Holland album that is undoubtedly the best Beach Boys album of the 70s (and, ironically, one with minimal input from Wilson).
Brits Florence & The Machine, also making their debut here, were another crowd favourite and if you weren’t familiar with them previously there was no escaping Florence Welch’s amazing and powerful voice upon which everything hinges. In the end, the songs seemed to flow into each other as that voice dominated the entire amphitheater.
Pearl Jam’s ninth appearance at Bridge also marked Eddie Vedder’s 13th and the group seemed to revel in the acoustic setting, with the highlight being Chris Cornell’s appearance for ‘Hunger Strike.’
Finally, Neil Young arrived on stage at 12.20am and kicked off with ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Heart Of Gold.’ Sitting at the piano Young then performed ‘I’m Glad I Found You’ (read into that what you will) and was joined by Lukas Nelson, Micah Nelson and Promise of the Real) for ‘Mansion On The Hill’ and ‘Country Home’.
Finally, Eddie Vedder joined Young for the finale of ‘Who’s Gonna Stand Up?’, which included an audience singalong from those left, and the concert drew to a close after nine hours. At first, it seemed a little anti-climactic but maybe Young was as tired as most of the audience members.
If Saturday seemed epic, no doubt Sunday’s concert starting in the early afternoon will be even more so. But a flight back to Australia beckons for me tonight – but I will return!