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Bridge School Benefit Concert: Familiar Feel, Spirited Collaborations

October 22nd, 2006

San Jose Mercury News

The 20th installment of the Bridge School Benefit was about old friends and familiar pleasures. On Saturday, event veterans like Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam and the Dave Matthews Band slipped the event's all-acoustic format on like a well-worn glove, while the most intriguing newbie, industrial rock icon Trent Reznor, struggled on his first try.

What the show at Mountain View's Shoreline Amphitheatre lacked in breakthrough performances and surprise guest stars, however, it made up for with glorious weather and some spirited collaborations between the performers and host Neil Young, especially on an epic 'Cortez the Killer' that closed Matthews' set.

As always, current and former students of the Bridge School, a Hillsborough institution for children with severe physical and speech impairments, lined the back of the stage, accompanied by their parents. Included in this group was Neil and Pegi Young's son Ben, now in his late 20s, the impetus for the school's founding. Ben received a standing ovation when he was introduced, along with the rest of the students, to open the show.

Ben's dad opened and closed the show. Young was in fine voice in his initial three-song set, which closed with a duet with Pegi on 'Comes a Time' -- the two were joined by an American Indian drummer and dancer.

Devendra Banhart's set featured the first surprise of the day: Scottish folk guitar master Bert Jansch, in the Bay Area for a Great American Music Hall gig, was sitting in. Jansch took center stage for two numbers, 'Empty Pocket Blues' and the Pentangle tune 'When I Get Home,' and strummed along on Banhart's numbers. Banhart and his band, dubbed 'the Bridge' for the weekend, at least, looked and sounded like a band of hippie street musicians circa 1971, a point driven home by a cover of David Crosby's 'Traction in the Rain.'

Next was Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. This exquisite acoustic duo is rooted in old American music, but they've come up with something uniquely their own. It built to a high point with a version of 'Revelator' that ended with a Rawlings solo which brought the crowd to its feet. They ended with Young's 'Country Girl,' on which the composer came out to join the duo for a harmonica solo and a vocal lead on the last verse.

Death Cab for Cutie's melodic pop came across fine on the big stage. Radio hits 'Crooked Teeth' and 'Soul Meets Body' were well received, and a cover of Graham Nash's 'Military Madness' was a nice touch. (Despite the opening salvo of Crosby, Nash and Young covers, no one did a Stills number. Sorry, Steve.)

Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor made an unassuming entrance sporting a beard and a hooded sweatshirt. He played piano and sang, very quietly and very loudly, backed by an unconventional string quartet of two cellos, a bass and a violin. It was a noble experiment for the most electronic of rockers, and it was not a total success. Often the strings drowned out his voice, and the constant tension made you long for the release of screaming guitar and booming drums. Only on the closing 'Hurt,' with dissonant plucked cello accompaniment, did it all come together. It was the ensemble's first public performance, and it showed. The Foo Fighters meanwhile, have been mastering their acoustic act on the road, and they confidently performed a winning set with assistance from Petra Haden, daughter of jazz bassist Charlie Haden, and guitarist Pat Smear. Haden played violin and mandolin and sang, most impressively on a duet of 'Big Me' with Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl.

Seven years after returning to the road, the Beach Boys' troubled genius Brian Wilson no longer cowers behind a keyboard, looking as if he had been forced out on stage at gunpoint. Saturday he sat at a stool at center stage, clapping with the music and even flashing the occasional smile. His singing was good on opening selections from 'Smile' and 'Pet Sounds,' and the wealth of strong voices in his marvelous 12-piece ensemble allowed him to opt out of the more difficult parts. 'Good Vibrations' featured Young on organ, and the famous theremin part was played on flute, in keeping with the day's acoustic theme.

Next was Pearl Jam, a group that has become a Bridge School mainstay over the years. After two OK tunes on their own, 'Uncle Neil' upped the energy level by joining them for a version of Young's 'Throw Your Hatred Down,' a tune from the 'Mirror Ball' album they made together in 1995. From there they flew high with their own 'Daughter' and 'Better Man,' and covers of Tom Waits' 'Picture in a Frame' and Victoria Williams' 'Crazy Mary,' which closed their set. 'This is the best night of the year' said Dave Matthews as his band took the stage for a set that started low-key and picked up steam when 'Warehouse' exploded into a joyous salsa jam. After another old favorite, 'Ants Marching,' Young joined the boys for an extended 'Cortez the Killer' that might have been the day's most memorable number. Young went head to head with Matthews, violinist Boyd Tinsley and bassist Stefan Lessard, spurring them to greater heights with his fiery guitar playing.

Sadly, when Young returned for his own set 30 minutes later, all the fire was gone. Joined by most of the same Nashville cats who accompanied him on last year's 'Prairie Wind' (Spooner Oldham, Ben Keith, Rick Rosas, et al), he focused on some of the blander items from his rich catalog, numbers like 'Field of Opportunity' and 'Human Highway' from 'Comes a Time.' Many weary folks were already heading toward the exits when Young invited the whole company out for a closing 'Rockin' in the Free World.' It was a kick to see Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder sharing a mike at stage right, and to see Dave Rawlings rocking out (acoustically, of course) on his ax. It's too bad Young didn't draw on more of that shared energy during the rest of his set.


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