Report: Neil Young’s Bridge Benefit 25

Neil Young, Tony
Bennett, Eddie Vedder and the Foo Fighters bring down the house at Shoreline Amphitheatre
(Mountain View, Calif.) on October 23, 2011.

 

By
JUD COST

 

Unlike
last year when it rained all-day on Sunday, pleasant temperatures in the
high-70s helped make the 25th edition of Neil and Pegi Young’s Bridge School
Benefit Concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre, a real treat. As always, rain or
shine, the genre-bending music, most of it acoustic, was nothing short of
inspirational.

 

After
a brief welcoming spot from Neil and Pegi Young that included “Sugar
Mountain” and “I Am A Child,” Devendra Banhart, a well-deserved
sub for Jenny Lewis, opened the Sunday portion of the two-day affair. With his
shaggy mane trimmed, Banhart seemed to suffer a brief attack of “the
Sampson syndrome,” hitting a couple of vocal clunkers. Maybe you could
chalk it up to nerves, opening for a roster knee-deep in star-power. Once he
shifted gears with a song warbled in Spanish (he spent his youth in Caracas, Venezuela),
Banhart finished his short set in fine style. And he dedicated his last number
to the recently departed Burt Jansch of U.K. folk band Pentangle.

 

Norah
Jones and her fine back-up outfit, the Little Willies, had to look no farther
than downtown Bakersfield for the inspiration to kick-start an air-tight set of
honky tonk. It’s a direction that Jones, Ravi Shankar’s daughter, chose for her
sophomore album, 2004’s Feels Like Home,
for good reason. Wearing a white safari helmet with a turquoise band, she
revealed that the Little Willies had picked that name as a tribute to Willie
Nelson and now, even with its demeaning sexual overtones, they were pretty much
stuck with it.  Jones and the boys
handled Eddy Arnold’s “Tennessee Stud” and Dolly Parton’s
“Jolene” with the same stylistic grace she’d employed on her
critically-lauded pop/jazz debut longplayer, Come Away With Me. And her Floyd Cramer-like ivory-tickling was a
nice fit for Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues.”

 

Beck
didn’t play Hank’s melancholy hit, but he dedicated his powerful set to the
tenth (actually, the ninth) anniversary of Sea
Change
, his career-defining 2002 work whose heartbroken songs helped him
recover from his split with a longtime girlfriend. With a battered, Neil-like
stetson resting on his blonde mop, Beck made good use of a xylophone, whose
glockenspiel-aping top end rode his tunes like a world-class surfer perched on
a 30-footer at Mavericks, just over the hill near Half Moon Bay.

 

“Neil
Young was one of the first to reach out to a new artist. He was right
there,” said a grateful Beck, who was joined onstage by Young for the
latter’s relatively obscure “Pocahontas.” The show’s host had sat in
Saturday on the same tune without telling Beck ahead of time. “If I’d
known he was going to do that, I’d have played that song last,” Beck noted
on Sunday. In keeping with the family vibe of this series, Beck brought his
young son, Cosimo, up front to bang a tambourine on “Two Turntables and a
Microphone.” One of the day’s warmest moments was the peewee hightailing
it offstage afterwards with his long curls bouncing in the light breeze.

 

Mumford
& Sons, a British acoustic folk act touted by Kinks frontman Ray Davies on
his recent album of celebrity duets, got a great introductory response,
presumably from all those who’d seen them play on Saturday’s bill. They seem to
cause the same kind of crowd havoc as U.S. stars the Avett Brothers, but the
Avetts do the “Civil War-style punk rock” thing with only half the
volume (and maybe twice the excitement). “It’s so much nicer to see you
all while the sun’s still out,” said frontman Lewis Mumford, before Neil
Young joined in for a rousing version of his Crazy Horse-tailored crowd
favorite “Dance, Dance, Dance.”

 

The
most surprising Bridge School 25 moment occurred when Carlos Santana played a
set with Los Invisibles, a band he co-founded recently with his wife (and the
band’s drummer) Cindy. They opened with ’50s pop standard “Autumn
Leaves,” done up to West Coast Jazz perfection with Carlos magically
playing the part of Los Angeles guitarist Barney Kessel and Dave Matthews
superbly filling the shoes of pianist Russ Freeman (with an occasional Erroll
Garner flourish). I’d loved to have seen them continue in that vein, but they
quickly shifted gears to a terrific Tito Puente-influenced Afro-Cuban big band
sound. Most of the younger crowd who’d been on their feet for Mumford &
Sons, sat slouched in their plastic seats for the jazz stuff. Santana thanked
Neil Young for “being an architect of compassion” before returning to
the more traditional Santana ballroom vibe of “Oye Como Va.”

 

Eddie
Vedder, solo, was easily the day’s biggest unexpected treat. I’d briefly
considered getting something to eat during his set. But I’m very glad I didn’t.
Accompanied by nothing more than an expensive version of that plastic
dime-store ukulele you may have been given for Christmas, the extroverted Pearl
Jam frontman preceded his set with an entertaining tale. “Last night I
opened with a Neil Young song. I’m not gonna do that tonight. Big mistake. Neil
told me, ‘The only mistake was not telling me. We could have fucked it up
together.’ Oops, sorry about swearing in front of the [Bridge School]
kids [seated onstage]. Neil and Pegi don’t use the ‘f-word.”

 

Vedder
made amends by dedicating the great death-rock classic, J. Frank Wilson’s
“Last Kiss,” to one of the Bridge
School graduates who’d
recently earned a pair of degrees from UC Berkeley. “That’s two more than
I have,” added Vedder, who further stoked the campfire-like feel with a
heartwarming rendition of Patience & Prudence’s “Tonight You Belong To
Me,” accompanied vocally by Arcade Fire’s Regine Chassagne. He also
brought out Jerry Hannan for a soundtrack gem from the Sean Penn-directed film
Into The Wild. Next on Vedder’s celebrity check-list was a real surprise.
“Here’s my friend Beck Hansen,” said Vedder before they lit up a fine
take of the Everly Brothers’ “Sleepless Nights” with Beck on harmony.
Vedder concluded his amazing program accompanied by Neil Young on Young’s
“Don’t Cry No Tears Around Me.” Whew!

 

The
Foo Fighters ignited a NASA-like liquid nitrogen response under those in the
audience of a certain, Nirvana-worshipping demographic. The 35-year-old in
front of me was almost as much fun to watch as Dave Grohl & Co.,
themselves. He’d throw his left fist upward three or four times towards the
stage, then punctuate it with the famous rock-star point to the heavens. At the
height of Nirvana’s fame, 20 years ago, Grohl (the trio’s last drummer) said he
felt “this is going to end, and I’ll have to get a job. You can’t do both:
have a family and play music. And then I met Neil Young and found that you can
do both at the same time.” Grohl had told late-night TV host Conan O’Brien
recently that they immediately regretted picking “Foo Fighters” as
the new band’s handle, but were now prepared to live with it.

 

The
always superb Tony Bennett seemed like the perfect way to end a fine day. It
takes real stamina to make it through to the end of a nine-hour extravaganza
like this. Bennett recently celebrated his 85th birthday by releasing an
excellent duet album with current stars Lady Gaga (“She’s such a great
singer,” said Bennett) and the late Amy Winehouse, as well as evergreens
Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson and others. Tonight, Bennett played his normal
set with his brilliant backing quartet. No guest stars, none needed. “I
Got Rhythm” and “Who’s Got The Last Laugh Now” (“They all
laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round/They all
laughed when Edison recorded sound”), both chestnuts penned by George and
Ira Gershwin, dug a groove that just wouldn’t quit.

 

Bennett’s
four-piece band showcased stellar pianist Lee Musiker and excellent guitarist
Gray Sargent along with Marshall Wood on upright bass and percussionist Harold
Jones, described by Bennett as “Count Basie’s favorite drummer.”
Bennett, a true national treasure who was the favorite singer of no less than
Frank Sinatra, wound things up with the always popular tribute to that city 30
miles to the north, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” And he got a
hearty laugh from the crowd for the same line he’s been using lately:
“I’ve been doing this for 50 years. No, I’ve been doing this for 60
years!” One story he didn’t repeat because he didn’t play the song tonight
concerned his cover of Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart,” one of
Bennett’s earliest chart hits. He got what he thought would be a “thank
you” call from Williams, he told an SF JAZZ audience last May. Instead, it
was Williams asking him why he’d screwed up his song. Here’s hoping Tony
Bennett can one day tell an audience, “I’ve been doing this for 75
years.” He deserves nothing less.

 

 

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