Show Review: Bridge School Benefit, Shoreline Amphitheatre

Oct. 25, 2011

by Dakin Hardwick, Customer Support Shift Supervisor

The great thing about living in the Bay Area is that we can easily stretch out our Summer well into fall. Some of our nicest, warmest days fall in October, and we can stretch out the outdoor concert season to as late as Halloween.  Although we still have a few more weeks of outdoor shows in us, the season’s de facto closer is Neil Young’s Annual Bridge School Benefit Concert.

To brief you on a little history, the Bridge School is a school for children with severe physical impairments and complex communication needs, and it exists primarily based on donations, with a huge chunk of it’s funding from Neil and his wife Pegi Young. In order to make ends meet, Young puts together an all-star concert. The thing that makes it especially interesting is that all performers are required to perform acoustically. He also doesn’t always book bands that typically perform in this format. Past performers have included Ministry, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Sonic Youth and Metallica, none of which are known for their “acoustic” sound.

This year’s set, although generally comprised of artists that are pretty comfortable working in the acoustic format, was still a widely varied affair. Young, as per his usual, opened the show with a brief set, followed by a performance by Devendra Banhart. This was his first local gig in quite some time, and he looked great. Gone was his trademark long, flowing hair & beard, and he replaced it with a new short cut, with a well-trimmed beard and a black suit. He sounded wonderful, playing a four song set of bossa nova-tinged folk songs accompanied by a second guitarist and a hand percussionist. It was short and sweet, and the perfect summery music for a warm October afternoon.

Next we were treated by a rare live performance by Norah Jones’ side project The Little Willies, a group of New York musicians that originally set out to do Willie Nelson covers for fun. It’s great to see Jones step outside of her persona as the queen of mellow, and genuinely look like she’s having fun. Their set, which included an intense cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” in addition to other “olde timey” classics like “Tennessee Stud” and “Lonesome Blues,” all played like a bunch of friends enjoying cheap beers on a warm day.

In a sort of yin/yang moment, Beck played a set of songs using his band from his stunning 2002 record Sea Change, which was full of melancholia and rich, beautiful layers. The acoustic format faired well for these songs, showing how truly delicate these pieces were. He also threw in a cover of Young’s “Pocahantas,” because this show really revolves around Young.

After Beck played, Carlos Santana played, introducing his new band with his wife, Cindy Blackman Santana (The drummer with the big afro from Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” video), Los Invisibles. They opened their set with a bit of Cuban jazz improv, using the melody from the holiday classic “Greensleeves” as it’s root. The crowd met this piece with, well, a bit of apathy. As a performer that has been in the business for 50 years, Santana knew he was losing them. So he switched up the set and launched into the high energy Salsa of “Corazon Espinado,” which got the crowd moving, and he kept the crowd dancing for the two hit singles off his mega album Supernatural: “Maria Maria” and “Smooth,” vamping our the former song into a 10 minute long latin dance number that nobody seemed to want to end.

Soliciting bigger cheers than Young was Eddie Vedder. Looking dapper in an Indiana Jones inspired fedora, and without Pearl Jam behind him, he did just fine. His grizzled baritone is still one of the most distinctive voices in rock, and he sounded in fine form this evening. He chose to open with another Young cover, “Don’t Cry No Tears,” only to flub the lyrics halfway through the first verse. Instead, he opted for a cover of The Beatles “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” which got the entirety of the crowd, all about 30,000 strong, singing along. He alternated between guitar, ukulele, and mandolin, playing an array of covers and originals. He brought out Regine from Arcade Fire to sing harmony on “You Belong To Me,” and Beck, in a meeting of 90’s alt rock minds, to sing Graham Parsons’ “Sleepless Nights.”

Vedder brought us to UK folkies Mumford & Sons. They are a 4 piece band that has a banjo player and no drummer. (The singer hits a bass drum with his foot on occasion.)  They are also the biggest band to break out of 2011, much to the surprise of nearly everyone. I was not overly familiar with their work prior to this set, but I was genuinely amazed by their set. It was high energy, all members of the band exuded charisma. If anybody doubted this band, they just need to see them live to understand how they managed to sell out Merriweather Post Pavilion in just over a week. I was certainly converted.

Now, it was time for the comedown. It was getting later, and the temperatures started to drop sharply. Dave Matthews came out with his collaborator Tim Reynolds, ran through a 45 minute set of obscure Dave Matthews Band album cuts, killing the energy of Mumford, and prompting me to decide that my time was better suited for securing a funnel cake. (Done. And delicious.)

The “headliner” is always Neil, but the band that plays before Neil is usually the real headliner. This gig gave us Arcade Fire, the Montreal, QC 8 piece project that managed to take the world by storm. I don’t quite know what I’m missing, but their set was passable. Singer Wyn Butler knows how to engage a crowd, and their songs are catchy, but they don’t stick with me. I was the minority, however, since the crowd ate up very last moment of the set.
Young popped back out, only at was already after midnight, so he did a short & sweet set of acoustic hits, closing up with “Heart Of Gold,” and then bringing back nearly every musician of the night to do the Youngblood’s classic “Get Together.”  Thereby closing up another epic summer of live music in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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