POV: Bridge School 2015
Neil Young hosted the 29th Bridge School Benefit at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif. Oct. 24-25. The concert is a great benefit every year that features two days of music by more than a half-dozen acts performing acoustic arrangements of their songs. I love hearing artists present their songs differently.
It’s all for a great cause. Ben Young, the son of Neil and Pegi Young, needed special schooling to handle his communication difficulties. Pegi helped establish the Bridge School to provide such instruction to Ben and other children in the Bay Area. The benefit concerts raise funds to run the school as well as provide assistance to similar schools throughout the world. This is accomplished through ticket sales and raffling off various items during the show.
As usual, the benefit began with a blessing and hoop dance (Native-American style) and a speech by Pegi Young detailing the accomplishments of the Bridge School and introducing the students on the riser at the back of the stage.
Neil Young always brings a couple of songs to opening performance. This time he chose “Comes a Time” and “Sugar Mountain” on Saturday and “After the Goldrush” and “Human Highway” on Sunday. On Sunday, I noticed Neil’s shirt said “Soil” during the opening set, and “Earth” during the closing set. I’m not sure if that was a hidden message or just coincidental.
Nils Lofgren performed a Saturday-only 3-song set. After “Girl in Motion,” Neil joined him for “Believe.” Nils ended up closing with “Keith Don’t Go,” a song about The Rolling Stones’ guitarist that features a great guitar solo.
Spoon was next, opening with a piano and vocal only version of “Satellite” before bringing out the rest of the band for 6 more songs. They added a horn section halfway through and closed with a cover of Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile).”
Gary Clark Jr. played solo while sitting on a simple chair. The performance was still electrifying as he served up stripped-down arrangements of “The Healing,” “Bright Lights,” “Church,” “When My Train Pulls In” and a cover of Robert Petway’s “Catfish Blues.”
St. Vincent’s set was different than usual due to the stripped-down nature of the Bridge School benefits. Her 7 songs included concert staples such as “Digital Witness,” “Cruel,” and “Cheerleader.” Annie Clark is an excellent guitarist and adapted her electric parts to acoustic just fine, but she did not have the quirky moves as much and her synths were replaced by piano and harpsichord (although she did sit on the former for a song, and play the latter on “Prince Johnny”).
Ryan Adams’ appearance was his second weekend at Bridge School and his acoustic style was a perfect match for the benefit. He opened both days with “Gimme Something Good” but varied his set each day. Saturday featured “Damn, Sam (I Love a Woman That Rains),” “Jacksonville Skyline,” and “New York New York” for a closer. On Sunday Adams played “Lucky Now” and “Winding Wheel” with “Wharf Rat” as the closer. Saturday’s performance also included a special improv rendition of a song perhaps called “No Shirt” after a shirtless fan got Ryan’s attention.
Appearing for his third Bridge School benefit, Ben Harper began his set with “A House Is a Home” (with Pegi Young on vocals) and ended with “Ohio” (surprisingly Neil did not join).
Sheryl Crow brought out the most guests this year. She opened with “A Change Would Do You Good.” On Saturday she then played a country song – “Crazy Ain’t Original” – while on Sunday she sang “If It Makes You Happy.” She brought out the Dixie Chicks for “Strong Enough” and Annie Clark for “Riverwide.” She ended her sets on Neil’s piano with Gary Clark Jr. joining in on guitar and Pegi Young on vocals.
The Dixie Chicks played a varied yet hit-filled set on Saturday – “The Long Way Around,” “Truth #2” (a Patty Griffin cover), “Landslide” (a Fleetwood Mac cover), “Goodbye Earl,” “Video Games” (a Lana Del Rey cover), “Wide Open Spaces,” “Cowboy Take Me Away,” “Sin Wagon,” and “Not Ready to Make Nice.” On Sunday, they played the same set but flipped the second and third numbers. An extra Sunday treat was Sheryl Crow and Annie Clark joining them on “Truth #2.”
Neil Young and Promise of the Real were in great form each night with two different sets. Lukas Nelson’s band seems to be really invigorating Neil and he dug deep into his catalog to create two very fulfilling sets for die-had fans (aka Rusties). Lukas Nelson’s great voice handled lead vocals on Kurt Weill’s “September Song” both days. Nils Lofgren was also part of the band for the entire set on Saturday, and Spooner Oldham joined the band on Sunday. The final number on both days featured many others joining in. Singing onstage with Neil Young has to be a highlight for any artist.
On Saturday, his set was “Human Highway,” “Hold Back the Tears,” “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “September Song,” “Southern Man,” “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem),” “Are You Ready for the Country?,” “Wolf Moon,” and “One of These Days.”
The Sunday set included “Out on the Weekend,” “From Hank to Hendrix,” “Harvest Moon,” “September Song,” “Workin’ Man,” “Big Box,” “Are You Ready for the Country?,” “One of These Days,” “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?”
Several of the songs are from Neil’s recent studio album, The Monsanto Years, recorded earlier this year with Promise of the Real. The album is a scathing statement against genetically modified food in general and against a company developing GMO seeds. On November 13 he will release Bluenote Cafe, a 2 CD set from his 1988 tour (featuring 7 unreleased songs and a 19 minute version of “Tonight’s the Night”), as part of his ongoing Archive collection. It is currently available (CD, Vinyl and PONO) for pre-order on Amazon and on NeilYoung.com.
His recent “Rebel Content” tour showcased Neil’s Village, a collection of tents featuring more than a half-dozen activist organizations advocating various causes. Neil also launched an on-line village for these organizations at GoEarth.org. Hopefully more dates will be announced for next year; I definitely want to see the full show as it is receiving rave reviews.
Once again, the Bridge School Benefits were a highlight of my year photographing live music. It is wonderful to hear such great music and support a great cause.