Buffalo Springfield Bridge School Reunion a Triumph

Neil Young hosts Pearl Jam, Lucinda Williams, Kris Kristofferson, Elvis Costello, Billy Idol and others at one of the most historic of his annual benefits

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Photos: Buffalo Springfield, Pearl Jam, Neil Young and more from this year's Bridge School benefit

It has been public knowledge for weeks that the surviving members of Buffalo Springfield were going to reunite at Saturday"s Bridge School Benefit in Mountain View, California — but somehow it didn"t seem real until Neil Young, Stephen Stills and Richie Furay walked onstage and played the opening chords of "On the Way Home." The three men hadn"t shared a stage together since the final Buffalo Springfield concert in 1968, but as soon as their voices merged, it seemed as if no time had passed for them at all. Some of the songs hadn"t been performed by anyone in the band since Lyndon Johnson was president, but after a week of rehearsals, the band gave a near-flawless performance. It was the clear highlight of a remarkable seven-and-a-half hour concert.

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Young, who wore his signature Sixties-era fringe jacket, was content to play guitar for most of the show, letting Furay and Stills sing most of the songs. Furay, now a born-again Christian who works as a pastor at Colorado church, still has his sugar-sweet voice. A recently slimmed-down Stills sounded crisper than he had in many years. With CSN drummer Joe Vitale in for the late Dewey Martin and Young"s longtime bassist Rick Rosas replacing the late Bruce Palmer, the group meticulously re-created the studio arrangements of classics ("Mr. Soul," "Rock and Roll Woman"), obscurities ("Do I Have to Come Right Out and Say It," "Burned") and, of course, their lone big hit, "For What It"s Worth." A high point: "Nowadays Clancy Can"t Even Sing," one of Young"s earliest compositions. At the time it was recorded, the band"s label felt Young"s voice was too unusual to sing it, and gave it to Furay, but tonight the two of them traded vocals back and forth. Like the entire set, it was nostalgic, blissful — and moving.

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Pearl Jam"s set was also a celebration of their past. "It was twenty years ago last night that our group played our first gig," Eddie Vedder told the crowd. "Without the assistance of Uncle Neil we probably have only made it five." Like all acts at the Bridge School Benefit, Pearl Jam played entirely acoustic. They opened with "Last Kiss." Old hits "Better Man," "Black" and "Nothing Man" had the crowd singing along, while a four-piece string section joined them for a gorgeous rendition of "Just Breathe." They also covered Patti Smith"s "Dancing Barefoot," and brought Neil Young onstage for "Walk With Me" from his new album, Le Noize. "Twenty years looks pretty good," Vedder said. "Then you get around these guys and realize you aren't even halfway there."

The Bridge School, founded by Neil and his wife Pegi in 1986, educates children with cerebral palsy and other disorders. These concerts have raised money for twenty-four years, and Young has always make sure to book impressive talent. Like every previous year, students from the Bridge School sat on a riser in the back of the stage — the best seats in the house. This year"s show was dedicated to Larry "L.A." Johnson, Neil"s longtime creative partner, who died in January. Midway through the evening Pegi announced a "Larry Johnson dance-athon," leading it with Neil during "Dancing In the Streets" as the screens showed a photo montage of Johnson.

The show had begun with Young singing "Sugar Mountain" and "Comes a Time." Super abbreviated sets by Grizzly Bear and Modest Mouse followed, and then Jackson Browne and David Lindley took the stage. Their set featured "For Everyman," "These Days" and a beautiful cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Brothers Under the Bridge." This obscure Born in the U.S.A. outtake is about homeless Vietnam veterans, but with Brown and Lindley playing it directly under the Bridge School"s gigantic bridge logo, it also paid tribute to the benefit.

Lucinda Williams came out next, accompanied only by her guitarist, Doug Pettibone. Emmylou Harris surprised the crowd when she came out to accompany Williams on "Greenville," as Harris did on the 1998 original. Williams followed this up with "Born to Be Loved," which she said would be on her next album, planned for January. Midway through this gentle love song, a gust of wind blew her lyric sheets off their stand, but she recovered nicely by telling Pettibone to improvise while an aide collected the scattered papers. Williams ended with a rollicking "Joy" from Car Wheels On a Gravel Road.

Kris Kristofferson was scheduled to perform with Merle Haggard, but Haggard has cancelled his tour dates and other shows for health reasons. "Merle is the closest thing to Hank Williams we got on the planet," Kristofferson, who played solo, told the crowd. "Send a prayer his way." "Me and Bobby McGee" had the crowd roaring, particularly when the singer changed the lyrics to say "good enough for me and Janis." He ended the set with "Sunday Mornin" Comin" Down" from his 1970 debut LP, Kristofferson.

Perhaps inspired by Young"s return to Buffalo Springfield, Bridge School vet Billy Idol devoted five tracks from his six-song set to the music of his Seventies punk band Generation X. While few in the crowd seemed to know any of these songs aside from "Dancing With Myself," Idol and his longtime guitarist Steve Stevens played with such intensity that the crowd stayed on their feet for most of the set, with the finale, "Rebel Yell," eliciting a huge response.

Even Elvis Costello was impressed by Idol"s set. "How great is Billy Idol?" he asked the crowd. "I haven"t seen him in thirty-three years, when he was on Top of the Pops." Costello brought out Emmylou Harris for his entire set, beginning with a lovely duet on Neil Young"s "Tell Me Why." They also song the Everly Brothers song "Love Hurts," which Harris performed with Gram Parsons shortly before his death. Pegi Young and Lucinda Williams joined Costello for a powerful "Scarlet Tide." "I found a razor blade since I first played here twenty years ago," Costello said, in one of the night"s lighter moments. "Back then I looked like the Wolfman. I would have kept it had I known the Werewolf look was going to come back."

After Pearl Jam and Buffalo Springfield played, most of the evening's performers came back out for a sloppy but fun "Rockin" in the Free World." Young and Vedder traded off vocals, while Stills and Jackson Browne helped out on guitar. Richie Furay clapped along, grinning hugely, clearly overjoyed to be back on a stage with his band mates after so many decades. If the Buffalo Springfield story ends after the second night of the Bridge School Benefit, it will be the perfect final chapter.

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