Report: Buffalo Springfield Live @Bridge Benefit

 

Neil Young’s annual
Bridge School Benefit concert at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif. the weekend of Oct. 24 saw the first-ever reunion
of his old band Buffalo Springfield (full audio of their segment can be heard streaming right here, or for MP3 download right here). Also doing sets were Pearl Jam,
Elton John & Leon Russell, Modest Mouse, Grizzly Bear, a revue-wielding T
Bone Burnett, and Young himself.

 

By
Jud Cost

There
were so many breathtaking high points and magical vistas created by the Sunday
roster of Neil and Pegi Young’s annual two-day Bridge School Benefit concert at
Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheatre, it felt like a slow climb up Mount
Everest. Like any such assault on a towering peak, you had to deal with the
elements. It rained, off and on, for more than half of the show’s seven-plus
hours, time enough to get thoroughly soaked and completely dry off a couple of
times over before the long-awaited appearance of Buffalo Springfield wrapped
things up at a little after 9:00 in the evening.

 

As
he always does, Neil Young got things rolling at around 2:00 in the afternoon
with a short solo set that began with the wistful “Sugar Mountain.”
Sporting a well used ’30s-style fisherman’s hat with a feather in its brim,
Young then brought out the Wisdom Dancers, dressed in Native American garb, to
sanctify the concert and his wife Pegi to sing harmony on his last number,
“Comes A Time.”

 

One
of the best things about this multi-act/cross-generational shindig is that its
acoustic nature keeps time between sets to a bare minimum. Not long after
Young’s final notes had settled on the poncho-draped crowd, indie-rock heroes
Grizzly Bear strolled onstage. The Brooklyn-based foursome played a melodic set
that had its roots in classic Simon & Garfunkel as well as the literate,
baroque-psych angst of Jeff Kelly’s Green Pajamas. With its Smile-daubed harmonies, strummed banjo
and Great Depression hobo-campfire feel, Grizzly Bear seems like this year’s
Fleet Foxes, a crowd favorite here in 2009 who recently hijacked the soundtrack
to Jack Goes Boating, the touching
directorial debut and Oscar-worthy performance of Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

 

Modest
Mouse cranked up the decibels and summoned up the ghosts of American Beauty-style Grateful Dead,
then went somewhere else with a sumptuously noisy mix of fiddle, washboard,
tuba, banjo, trumpet and guitars. At times it sounded like the orchestra of
zany ’40s funnyman Spike Jones joining forces with the local Salvation Army
band to play in an Indonesian brothel. Then they’d downshift into something as
velvet-lined as Cat Stevens accompanied by an army chaplain’s field organ
playing in a moonlit cornfield.

 

When
Kris Kristofferson, strapped into a harmonica rack, walked out to announce that
Merle Haggard, originally scheduled to play with him, had to cancel due to
doctor’s orders, there must have been more than a few souls in the crowd whose
hearts sank – and not just because Haggard was among the missing. Anyone who
witnessed Kristofferson’s 2009 solo appearance at the nearby Campbell Heritage
Theatre – littered with muffed guitar parts and forgotten lyrics – must have
feared for a repeat performance. Instead, it was total redemption this
afternoon for the man responsible for some of the very best country music songs
ever written. His singing voice sounded firm and assertive, his guitar playing
simple and exemplary.

 

Kristofferson
launched his set with one of his best, “Me And Bobby McGee,” ending the
last chorus with “good enough for me… and Janis… good enough for me
and Bobby McGee.” The line brought ripples of joy from those in the crowd
of over 20 thousand who recalled Janis Joplin’s posthumous 1971 version of the
song. Kristofferson’s ace in the hole was “Sunday Morning Coming
Down,” a heartbreaking portrait of a down-and-out loner, as he fumbled,
once again, through his closet “for his cleanest dirty shirt…and I’m
wearin’ it!” Two hours into the show, the afternoon’s first of many
standing ovations was well-deserved.

 

T
Bone Burnett, looking more like an Ivy League English lit prof than a recent
Oscar-winning film composer, stepped to the mic and announced his
show-within-a-show concept: T-Bone
Burnett’s Speaking Clock Revue
. Patterned after American vaudeville and the
English Music Hall tradition, it featured short,
punchy sets by a head-spinning array of talent, rarely seen in one place.
Canadian songbird Neko Case batted lead-off, followed by another Oscar winner,
Jeff Bridges, Appalachian country music legend Dr. Ralph Stanley, and a pair of
fabled keyboardists, Elton John and Leon Russell. U.K. renaissance man Elvis
Costello, more loveable the older he gets, acted as compere for the afternoon,
as well as playing his own dazzling set. “My older brother, T-Bone, told
me what to do,” said Costello as he donned the ringmaster’s hat.

 

The
golden-voiced Neko Case, for some reason the only female performer on the bill
of this year’s clambake, strummed her acoustic so strenuously you couldn’t read
the phrase tattooed on her right forearm. Liberal splashes of trombone, trumpet
and tuba gave the music of the crimson-haired Canadian chanteuse, now playing
regularly with Vancouver’s
New Pornographers, plenty of pizzazz.

 

From
the late ’60s heyday of Baltimore Oriole first baseman Boog Powell to current
S.F. Giants shortstop Juan Uribe – and hundreds of sports stars in between – fans
in the stands just love to holler anybody’s name with an “ooo” in it,
mainly because it’s a sign of love, not the “Booo” it so closely
resembles. Fans of the Coen Brothers’ 1998 comedy classic The Big Lebowski got their chance to scratch that itch when the
picture’s star, Jeff Bridges, ambled onstage to a rousing chorus of
“Duuude.”

 

Looking
trim in a salt-and-pepper goatee, Bridges played a brief, workmanlike set that
brought to life Bad Blake, his grizzled honky tonk veteran from 2009’s Crazy Heart. Costello and Burnett,
impishly sneaked up behind Bridges and strummed away, surprising the veteran
movie star. The only thing better than seeing Bridges perform live would have
been to catch him emptying a half-full plastic jug of pee from the door of his
battered pickup, out in the parking lot earlier, like he did in front of the
bowling alley he was scheduled to play that night in Crazy Heart.

 

The
segue from a country music legend created by a Hollywood screenplay to a real
live Bluegrass Hall of Famer took almost no time at all. Dr. Ralph Stanley, one
half of the Stanley Brothers, who along with Flatt & Scruggs were early, post-World
War II disciples of the signature sound created by Bill Monroe, has found his
second and third wind lately with stellar live performances of the music he
learned in the Clinch Mountain area of Virginia. A line drawn directly from the
original Carter Family through Monroe
would hit Ralph Stanley (and his brother Carter who died in 1966) square in the
chest. A thrilling gospel number, “Lift Him Up That’s All” made up
for any church services missed Sunday morning by the show’s attendees.
“I’ve been singing for 64 years. I’m 83 years old now and still
trying,” said Stanley
before playing one of the Stanley Bothers’ signature tunes, “Man of
Constant Sorrow.”

 

“Bless
you for coming out in the rain. We’re gonna make the rain go away,” said
Costello, glancing skyward hopefully, before belting out a stirring rendition
of “King Of America” backed by the Speaking Clock pit band. “Now
here’s a rock ‘n’ roll song from 1921,” smirked Costello to introduce
“A Slow Drag With Josephine,” a tune that spotlighted a nifty bit of
group whistling.

 

If
the stock market charts looked anything like the skyward-bound graph of today’s
music, all the good people who lost their shirts (and their homes) a while back
would be flush, and the perpetrators would all be doing time. A pair of
gold-standard piano veterans, Elton John and Leon Russell, took center stage to
play the entire contents of their recent, Burnett-produced album, The Union. The results were nothing but
money in the bank.

 

Costello
introduced the pair – John looking dapper in designer sunglasses before a grand
piano, Russell with a long snow-white beard, hunched in front of an upright – as
the product of “a lifetime of musical love and conversation.” The pair,
facing one another, was backed by a well oiled, ten-piece band of studio
session veterans. The mood wavered between Tumbleweed
Connection
-period John and the oldtime religion/tent show vibe of Russell,
whose meatier vocals tended to dominate. A quartet of Afro-American female
backup singers added the finishing touches that brought down the house.

 

A
recent Oakland Coliseum performance by Elton John playing his big hits, while
exciting, now seemed just a preamble to the mighty sound of his public
collaboration with Leon Russell. There were so many highs in this set you could
easily lose count. But nothing may have topped Russell and John wailing away on
a tune called “Monkey Suit” with the girls in the back giving it
their all, while one of the Bridge School kids, seated at the rear of the
stage, whacked away deftly with a pair of drumsticks.

 

A
light rain settled in again as an all-acoustic Pearl Jam appeared at 6:30 pm,
after a short dinner break. “It’s official, we’ve been a band for 20
years,” announced Eddie Vedder while everyone in the place scrambled to their
feet. “I wrote this next song after a party at Neil’s place. It’s not that
I wrote the song that quickly. It’s just that Neil has a really long
driveway.”

 

Vedder,
Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready and Matt Cameron were in a rare
position to stretch out tonight, to abandon their comfort zone. And they seized
it with both hands by including a string quartet to back them on a couple of
lovely numbers. Not to say that everything they played would have seemed at
home in the nearest symphony hall. “This next one is to surprise
Neil,” said Vedder as Young suddenly appeared in a red flannel workshirt
and old Levis to join the boys on a sweepingly expansive rocker that was about
as loud as it gets without an electric guitar in the mix. “I’ll be
vibrating for the next five days,” said Vedder as Young departed. “It
fills you with humility to be on the same stage with these people.”

 

Finally,
at about 8:00 pm, there they were, in the flesh, Richie Furay, Stephen Stills
and Neil Young, the three surviving members of famed L.A. folk/country-rockers
Buffalo Springfield together again for the first time since Young departed the
band in 1967 (if you discount their appearance here Saturday night, of
course).  For any worshippers of the
three albums the Springfield
cut, it was well worth the wait. This was a band that could do it all:
tear-smudged love letters, midnight confessionals, backwoods ballads and
jangling garage-rockers.

 

Accompanied
by bass and drums, the three wielded acoustics, but the lack of electric
guitars never stood in the way of recreating most of their classic catalog.
“Rock and Roll Woman,” with Stills belting out the familiar lead
vocals and Furay and Young on harmonies opened the door to their long-buried
vault. “I Am A Child,” one of the shining beacons from the band’s Last Time Around LP, released in ’68,
well after Young’s departure, nevertheless featured Young’s eggshell vocals at
their very best: deliciously vulnerable and melancholy. Nobody’s ever done it
any better.

 

“Do
I Have To Come Right Out And Say It,” like about half the band’s recorded
output, spotlighted Furay’s well-seasoned tenor, this time with Young tinkling
away on honky tonk piano. “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,”
[“Who’s putting sponge in the bells I once rung?”] had Furay back in
the saddle, warbling the cryptic lyrics to this gem. “Burned”
featured Young in a real country-garage shouter, about as loud as he got back
then. Then the torch was passed back to Furay for “Kind Woman” and
“A Child’s Claim To Fame.”

 

The
only rubber bullet in the holster found Stills jazzing up the potent lyrics to
the Springfield’s
first big national hit, 1966’s “For What It’s Worth,” an account of
the L.A.P.D. hassling teenagers during what the local newspapers billed then as
the “Sunset Strip Riots.” It’s not exactly as though Stills has been
made to sing the song 10 thousand times over the past 44 years and felt the
need to change things up for his own sanity.

 

But
the one-two knockout punch of Buffalo Springfield’s crowning glory,
“Bluebird” and “Mr. Soul,” perfectly realized nuggets
topped by very few, more than made up for that slight lapse. Stills’ soulful
vocals were a perfect fit for “Bluebird,” with both Stills and Young
wringing those guitars, two paces apart, for all they were worth. “Mr.
Soul” hit it out of the park with Young’s cautionary tale of rock stardom
[“Why in crowds just the trace of my face could seem so pleasin'”].
It was telling counterpoint to the Byrds’ “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’
Roll Star” and ended what may have been the best 50-minute set within
recent memory. 

 

In
a perfect universe, these guys would strap on the big electrics, hire some road
warriors and go out on tour immediately to let all the world know what a
fabulous band Buffalo Springfield was. That would be the time to find a way to
play live versions of Young’s two mindblowing yet delicate mini-epics,
“Broken Arrow” and “Expecting To Fly,” the latter produced
by Young along with under-appreciated arranging genius Jack Nitzsche.

 

But
for now, the next best thing was an all-hands-on-deck concert finale, a
sizzling reading of Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World” that mixed
the Springfield
members with Costello, Bridges, Case, Modest Mouse, Kristofferson and Burnett –
along with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, just wandering in from points unknown.
Lasting for over 10 minutes, the blood-boiling anthem acted as a giant blast
furnace to simultaneously dry off and warm up a crowd that been well rewarded
for its fortitude. It had been a glorious day.

 

 

 

 

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