Say goodnight, Neil and Pegi!
TEXT BY JUD COST
Now, here’s a real booking coup! R&B/blues legend Jimmy Reed played Neil Young’s 27th Bridge School Benefit over the Oct. 26-27 weekend, held as always at Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheatre. Not really, of course, since Reed died in 1976. But somebody had the good sense to play Reed’s greatest hits in most of the dead time between sets. So “Big Boss Man, “Bright Lights Big City,” and “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” along with all the others, filled every crack of Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheatre during the two-day extravaganza to raise money for the Bridge School, the pet project of Neil and Pegi Young.
The lineup for Saturday evening was one of the most solid within memory, featuring Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Queens Of The Stone Age, Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Jack Johnson, fun, Heart and Jenny Lewis. If there’s anything to criticize about the Bridge concerts, it’s that the performance roster is just a little too long. It’s like that old conundrum, would you rather have two steak dinners or three? Then again, the unwieldy lineup keeps the sets nice and short with a sharp focus, never a bad thing.
As he always does, Neil Young kicks things off at 5:00 pm on Saturday afternoon with a three-song appetizer that includes his own gem “Heart Of Gold” and a hackle-raising performance of some other fella’s tune, “Blowin’ In The Wind.” It was especially welcome if, like me, you’d just been playing The Other Side Of The Mirror, the DVD of Bob Dylan singing “Wind” with Joan Baez at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival to an enraptured fan base, then being booed mercilessly at Newport ’65 when he played “Like A Rolling Stone” backed by an electric band. What the hell were the Dylan devotees thinking!
Jenny Lewis, formerly of L.A. backwoods rockers Rilo Kiley, sounds more powerful every time I see her. The ginger-tressed singer belts out great stuff from behind the piano, backed by the Watson Twins, as she was on her ’08 solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat. It was a rousing opening act that set the bar nice and high.
Seattle‘s Heart featuring the Wilson sisters follows with an upbeat set of ’70s rockers delivered by vocalist Ann Wilson with all the lungpower of Grace Slick with sister Nancy on guitar. For some reason, they play Led Zep’s “The Rain Song,” but don’t include their big one, “Barracuda.” It means I have no platform for hauling out the old TV commercial from my bag of tricks. But here it is anyway: The hipster confesses he’s unable to say the name Barracuda, and the car salesman trying to sell him one says, “Follow me: ” BA,” “BA,” repeats the customer. Then it’s “RA,” “RA,” and “CU” “CU,” then “DA,” and “DA.” The salesman urges, “Now put them all together,” and the cool cat goes, “BA-BA, RA-RA, CU-CU, DA-DA!”
Spelled in lower case, fun is next, the fab indie-rock trio that probably has your four closest friends split right down the middle, either for or against. You’d have to have been stationed on a NASA satellite with Sandy Bullock to not have heard their smash “We Are Young” recently on late-night TV. Their set has the crowd raving and drooling, cheering on this oddball but very effective blend of African chants and sea shanties as sung by Tom Lehrer. Nate Reuss, Andrew Dost and Jack Antonoff, always one step ahead of the crowd, prove it this afternoon by ending their set with a knockout version of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
Diana Krall, possibly the best female modern jazz pianist since the glory days of Jutta Hipp, sounds terrific, just as she did at the Monterey Jazz Festival a few years ago. But she only plays three classics from the great American song book, accompanied by upright bassist Dennis Crouch, before bringing out her husband, Elvis Costello. With Elvis in his customary fishmonger’s hat, they play a few tunes together with Krall converting to more of a roadhouse style of ivory tickling.
Then Krall departs and Costello sticks his fingers in the wedding cake one more time for a slowed-down version of “Alison,” still his best song ever. After “The Angels Want To Wear My Red Shoes” and Beatles diamond “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” he tells a story about a club manager informing him that somebody wanted to meet him backstage, “a bloke who claims he was in a pop group.” Turned out to be none other than Graham Nash. “I told Graham he wouldn’t remember it, but the last time we met I was still in short pants, and he was in the Hollies,” reveals Costello. Then Nash appears onstage for a thrilling reading of Hollies staple “King Midas In Reverse.”
Former Bill Graham right-hand man and current Bridge Benefit stage announcer Jerry Pompili tells a good one between sets. He urges people to vote in local elections if they’re tired of all the partisan bickering in Washington D.C. Then he says, “Mark Twain once said that politicians, like diapers, need to be changed often—and for the same reason.”
Jack Johnson, the weakest link tonight, plays a pedestrian set mostly influenced by Nilsson’s “Lime In The Coconut,” with one bright moment, a cover of “Just What I Needed” by the Cars. Things pick up a bit when Johnson tries on a few zydeco-ish numbers with an accordionist.
“The world is still open to possibilities,” claims a bright-eyed Jim James as My Morning Jacket swings into its first number of a set that would be the high water mark of the evening. MMJ songs build to a climax that almost defies belief. Tunes like “Victory Dance” are punctuated with Kentucky hillbilly yelps, confirming that James seems to be the closest thing to a rock shaman since the glory days of Jimbo Morrison. There’s a song about farm labor that conjures up the spirit of John Steinbeck. By the time Neil comes out and joins the boys for a “Harvest Moon” finale, you get the feeling this was really something special.
Arcade Fire, as its front man Win Butler notes, is “pinch-hitting for the Killers” who had to cancel and “there’s nowhere else we’d rather be tonight than right here.” This highly successful, multi-member outfit based in Montreal has changed a bit since its initial U.S. tour in 2005. Instead of swapping instruments with one another as if participating in a drill by a volunteer fire department, they now seem to take their name more to heart. Not as overtly costumed as
Aussie combo Split Enz, Arcade Fire faintly resembles a band making the best of things after a devastating circus fire. Their theatricality is first-rate, and their fans (to employ the most overused word in hockey parlance) “obviously” love them. The sweetest thing about Arcade Fire is their passing similarity to revered Elephant 6 group Neutral Milk Hotel, but this is a band that stands on its own.
Unfortunately, the carriage and horses that took us to the Bridge Benefit are about to turn into a pumpkin and some mice as the clock nears midnight. The flags atop the landmark twin tents that cover the stage area are flapping in a stiffening breeze, and it’s time to depart before the last two acts, Queens Of The Stone Age and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, hit the stage. We’ve been here since 1:30 in the afternoon, and the old bones are beginning to creak. One thing’s for certain, we’ll return next year for the 28th season of Neil and Pegi’s fabulous three-ring circus.