The recent bulletin that the Youngs are separating has no effect on their pet project, the always talent-loaded, annual multi-artist Bridge School Benefit concert.
By Jud Cost
The San Francisco bay area climate in late October is a little like what they say about Chicago: If you don’t like the weather, wait around for 15 minutes, it may change. Over the years of attending Neil & Pegi Young’s Bridge School Benefit at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, Calif. we’ve sat through stifling heat, chilly winds, an occasional deluge and the nice kind of autumn day you remember as a kid, with burning corn stalks blowing in from the San Joaquin Valley blended with the smoke from your dad’s cigar. A brisk wind was gusting in the parking lot today, but inside the arena, the pointy, bra-like stage roof covering diverted it to somewhere else.
As always, Neil Young wanders onstage at 2:00 pm Sunday to kick things off. “Some of the oldest people in the bay area may be here, but we all started somewhere,” he says, cryptically. Then he hoists his acoustic for a perfect little set made up of “Sugar Mountain” and “On The Way Home,” a Buffalo Springfield classic. Always a good thing to see Neil right away, since, being one of those old people he just mentioned, there’s never any guarantee of making it to the 10:00 pm finish line of this marathon event to see him play the day’s final set.
Pegi Young & the Survivors deliver a razor-sharp set of country-rock with no help from Neil this year. The two recently announced their marital separation, but thankfully, the annual Bridge School Benefit concert was not among the collateral damage. One oddity here, as Neil’s voice creeps a little higher into the ozone over the years, Pegi’s seems to have become lower, and stronger. “Starting over,” she says pointedly after thanking keyboardist Spooner Oldham for writing one of her tunes. The entire set comes from her new album, due out tomorrow. Publicity will trump marital strife every time.
The rich harmonies and smart songwriting of Band Of Horses are next on the dance card with a set that sounds a little like the Avett Brothers if they’d grown up in Seattle rather than tobacco country. Frontman Ben Bridwell has gone through a couple of football teams worth of personnel over the past ten years, but the result is always one of the most satisfying indie-rock outfits on the scene. Their finale was thrilling with the words, “I could sleep” being the repeated motif. As Bridwell expresses gratitude for the warm reception, he warns the crowd, “After Tom Jones plays, better watch your step. There’ll be lots of underpants lying around.”
Norah Jones fronts a trio based in Brooklyn billed as Puss N Boots that also includes Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper. The ladies seem a bit lethargic until the last two numbers of their short set. Maybe they are put off by the small airplane from Palo Alto airport that keeps buzzing the stage. But they seem to shake the cobwebs for a song described by Jones as, “written by Tom Paxton about bull-riders, at least I think that’s what it’s about. We are going for that PG13 sound,” she winks. Then they bring the house down with a well targeted, agonizingly slow version of Neil Young’s “Down By The River” as the sun begins to tumble into the Pacific Ocean, some 15 miles to the west.
To those who may remember the best of Seattle’s grunge scene of 25 years ago (Mudhoney, Nirvana, Pearl Jam) the name Soundgarden may send a chill through a body still recovering from the sonic onslaught of those days. And the vision that still remains does not bring to mind acoustic guitars. But stripped of their ear-pummeling Marshall stacks—this is supposed to be an acoustic event—the northwesterners are surprisingly listenable, more goth and Black Sabbath than grunge. “Seems kinda sparse down here, usually the signal for people to come on down,” smirks singer Chris Cornell, pointing out a few choice empty seats. “Don’t send me no distant salutations/Don’t leave me alone in the twilight,” a Shawn Colvin country-rock lyric, works just as well for the flannel-flying crowd now entering the last stages of middle-age. “It was good to see Pearl Jam again,” says Cornell. “We haven’t worked together for a long time. And Tom Jones is my new best friend.”
Before Tom Jones completes his high-voltage set, he’ll be everybody’s new best friend. He was easily the highlight of the evening, judging by the small army that marched to the parking lot after the loveable Welshman had performed his magic. “There will be some songs you’ve heard before and some you have not,” he says affably. Then he attacks his opener with the zeal of a revivalist preacher. “This is my first time here for the Bridge School,” says Jones, wowed by the crowd reaction, “but it won’t be my last, God willing,”
Looking very dapper in a silver-grey sports jacket and black mock turtleneck, Jones breaks into a stellar re-working of his first smash from 1965, “It’s Not Unusual.” The former Vegas arrangement has been tweaked to add elements of zydeco, such as the accordion. “We recorded that in November of 1964,” recalls Jones. “It still sounds good, and next month it’ll be 50 years old—amazing because I’m only 38!”
After a few more items from Cajun country, Jones dips back into his armload of hit singles. “We wrote a lot of things in the ’70s that were dark,” he suggests, as he breaks into the best of the bunch. “My, my, my, Delilah!” he croons with enough electrical energy to give Hoover Dam the day off. “She stood there laughing/I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more.” Jones grins broadly as he reminisces about playing Vegas for the same hotel as Elvis Presley. “We’d go up to Elvis’ suite, and he’d sing the music he loved most: gospel music.” In between numbers, Jones slipped something tiny into his mouth. “Developed by a Welsh doctor,” he says secretively. “If it was good enough for Caruso, it’s good enough for me.” The great man pretty much sums up his irrepressible style. “I was born with the gift of a golden voice,” he says, humbly. And by now, he’s just about become the Welsh equivalent of Tony Bennett.
Brian Wilson takes the stage next with fellow Beach Boy Al Jardine in tow, backed by the same dynamite combo that toured extensively with his Pet Sounds and Smile revivals over the last five years. Darian Sahanaja, formerly of the Wondermints, is now at the helm of Wilson’s band, and he sings lead on “Darlin,'” formerly performed by Brian’s younger brother Carl, who died in 1998. Possibly due to the chilly evening, Brian actually hits a couple of rare vocal clunkers early, seated behind his keyboard, but he pulls it back together well before the last echo of “Fun, Fun, Fun” has reverberated down the rocky canyon toward the golf course. The short-set nature of Bridge School Benefit means this will be a fat-free version of the Beach Boys’ best, that includes “California Girls,” “God Only Knows,” “Do You Wanna Dance,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B,” “I Get Around” and “Help Me Rhonda” (with Jardine on lead vocal, as he was on the original single version). And with Thanksgiving fast approaching, it serves as the perfect dessert for Tom Jones’ succulent roast turkey.
I throw myself on the mercy of the court, once again. We did not stay for the last three sets by Florence and the Machine, Pearl Jam and Neil Young, himself, due to creaky bones and a sore posterior. But when October 2015 rolls around, just like Tom Jones, we too will be coming back to this bay area institution. God willing.