The annual Bridge School Benefit started just like the first one back in 1986 and so many since: Neil Young walking onstage with an acoustic guitar in his hand and a harmonica rack wrapped around his neck. Backstage awaiting their turn to play was a jaw-dropping line-up that only Neil Young and his wife Pegi could assemble: Arcade Fire, Queens of the Stone Age, Jack Johnson, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, My Morning Jacket, Fun., Jenny Lewis and Crosby, Stills and Nash, who haven't shared a stage with Young in more than seven years.
While most Bridge School shows begin with "I Am A Child" or "Sugar Mountain," this time Young opted for "Blowin' In The Wind," followed by "Heart Of Gold" and "Comes A Time," which he sang as a duet with Pegi. Seated on a riser in the back of the stage were students and alumni of the Bridge School. They all have severe physical and communication needs, and Young (like all performers during the eight-hour show) made sure to face them during some of his performance and engage them as much as possible.
Jenny Lewis and her band (including the Watson Twins on background vocals) took the stage next. Her set featured the title track to her 2008 solo LP, Acid Tongue as well as "Head Under Water" and "Rise Up With Fists!!" Towards the end, she played a countryfied version of Neil Young's 1999 deep cut "Buffalo Springfield Again." It's a lovely tune about Young's dream to reunite with his old band and "play for the fun we had." Oddly enough, that dream finally came true in 2010 on the very stage where Lewis stood, though by that point two of the members of the band had passed away.
Up next were Heart, who (oddly enough) had never played the Bridge School Benefit before. They're very accustomed to the unplugged format, however, and Ann Wilson was in astonishingly good voice. The crowd loved their cover of Led Zeppelin's "The Rain Song," though few people knew 1980's "Even It Up" or their new politically charged tune "Dear Old America." The finale of "Crazy On You" got the whole place on their feet, and Nancy Wilson was leaping into the air during her guitar solo and wildly grinning.
There's usually one young band on the bill, and this year it was Fun. They played as a trio, proving they can still create an enormous sound with just piano, acoustic guitar and Nate Ruess' huge voice. They had nearly everyone at the sold-out amphitheater singing along to radio hits "Some Nights" and "We Are Young." Even grizzled, boomer CSNY fans got into it. Their short set wrapped with a cover of the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," complete with a flugelhorn intro by Andrew Dorst. It was a wise move since they were playing to an audience of classic rock devotees, and it went over extremely well. "This is such a massive honor," Ruess said. "This is the best stage we've ever shared with anyone."
Things mellowed out when they wheeled out the piano for Diana Krall. Clearly recognizing that this wasn't quite her crowd, she sang just two songs ("There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth the Salt of My Tears" and "We Just Couldn't Say Goodbye") before breaking out a beautiful, slowed-down cover of Neil Young's "A Man Needs A Maid." It was the Live At Massey Hall version, complete with the chilling "a man feels afraid" segment. It may seem like an odd choice of cover song for a woman, but Krall absolutely made the track her own.
"It's all about love tonight," she said afterwards. "Love and family. So I'd like to bring out my husband, Elvis Costello." She backed him on "Sulphur And Sugarcane" before they duetted on Bob Dylan's 1971 obscurity "Wallflower." They obviously have very different fan bases, but the two of them should really sing together more often. Their voices blend together seamlessly.
Elvis Costello is a Bridge School Benefit veteran, and his seven-song set was an early highlight. Accompanied only by a stand-up bassist, he raced through fantastic renditions of "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," "A Slow Drag With Josephine," "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime" and "Alison." For his last song, he brought out Graham Nash for a duet on the Hollies classic "King Midas in Reverse."
Jack Johnson was a last-minute addition to the bill. Old favorites like "Banana Pancakes" and "Mudfootball" worked great in the stripped-down format. "I want to really get this going," he said prior to his last song. "So I want to bring Neil Young onstage." They played "Out on the Weekend," the opening track from Harvest and easily a contender for one of Young's ten greatest tracks.
The next act, My Morning Jacket, also brought Neil Young onstage during their set. Jim James explained that he first fell in love with Young's music when he watched him perform "Harvest Moon" on Saturday Night Live. James was obviously overwhelmed to be singing that song with Young twenty-one years later. It was an absolutely gorgeous rendition of the tune. They should really think about doing a tour one day; the possibilities for amazing collaborations are almost endless.
Arcade Fire (who played the Bridge just two years ago) were added to the bill after the Killers dropped out. "Neil e-mailed us a few days ago," said Win Butler. "They needed a pinch hitter, so we looked at our schedule. There's nowhere else on earth we'd rather be." They've been playing club gigs this month as the Reflektors and were in Miami just two days earlier, but how can anybody turn down an urgent plea from Neil Young?
To pay back the favor, Neil Young joined them onstage for a song introduced as "I Dreamed A Neil Young Song." Win explained that he recently had a dream where he was playing a gig and a bunch of the crowd walked out. He was playing a Neil Young-like song, and when he woke up he recorded the tune straight out of the dream. It did sound a little like something Young might write, especially when he joined in on the chorus and played harmonica.
They also played "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" for the first time, along with "Normal Person" and the title track from Reflektor. They've been skipping the hits at the club shows, but for the Bridge School they were willing to close out their set with "Wake Up." It's one of the greatest live songs of the past decade (if not all time) and even without electric guitar, it still shot joy through the entire crowd and even won over people who seemed to not have the slightest clue what band they were watching onstage.
By this point the sun had completely set, and the once-bright and sunny amphitheater was suddenly freezing cold. People were huddled under blankets and some even put on gloves and wool hats, but very few people seemed to actually head to their cars. There aren't a lot of chances to witness a show like this, even if it means enduring the cold and horrifying long lines at the bathroom and food stands.
The Queens of the Stone Age devoted half their set to tunes from their new LP, Like Clockwork, though they went back to 2002's Songs for the Deaf for their set-closer "Go With The Flow." The Queens cut an Unplugged album back in 2005, and their songs translate well to the acoustic format. They should challenge themselves with gigs like this more often.
It was midnight when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young finally took the stage, well over an hour behind schedule. They kicked off the reunion set with "Just A Song Before I Go" from 1977. CSN have sung this one a lot on their never-ending tour, and Young stayed mostly out of their way, occasionally chiming in on guitar or harmonica. Next up was a beautiful "Human Highway" (the title track to their aborted 1974 reunion album) and "Don't Want Lies," a brand new Stephen Stills song.
It seemed apparent that they didn't want this to be yet another exercise in CSNY nostalgia, since they followed the new Stills song up with "Singer Without A Song," a schmaltzy piano song that Neil Young premiered on tour with Crazy Horse last year. An a cappella "What Are Their Names" lead into "Deja Vu" and "Long May You Run." They seemed a tad under-rehearsed at times, and Young often paced around behind the the others, covering his head with either a hood or a cowboy hat.
"Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" demonstrated that although Stills' singing voice isn't what it used to be, his guitar playing is unmatched. He hasn't shared a stage with Young since the Buffalo Springfield tour ended prematurely in 2011. Any harsh feelings that caused seemed to be over, and the old friends repeatedly locked in together on their guitars. They make a great sound sound and it's a shame this sort of thing happens so infrequently. Crosby and Nash still have stunningly powerful voices, and they poured themselves into every note, almost as if to show Neil they are more than ready to handle another CSNY reunion tour.
The night wrapped up around 1:00 a.m. with an all-star singalong on "Teach Your Children." The stage wasn't as full as in recent years and there were many big absences, though Jenny Lewis and some of the others stuck around for the rare chance to sing with CSNY. Most of the crowd left after Neil and Pegi thanked everyone for coming, but they stuck around the stage to personally thank all the performers and chat with the students in the back of the stage. They're going to do it all again on Sunday, this time with Tom Waits and without Arcade Fire and Jack Johnson.