The acoustic guitar is The Great Equalizer. Because "Unplugged"-style concerts expose the shortcomings of bands that rely on effects and backing tracks, the instrument has a way of leveling the musical playing field. In a way that most "Unplugged" concerts never do, Neil Young's annual Bridge School Benefit shows offer established artists a chance to show what they can do in a looser format than most are accustomed to. The onstage presence of children from the school for the physically challenged and the low-key communitarian vibe usually humbles the musicians, and most of those on this year's bill -- which included Metallica, Blues Traveler, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Dave Matthews Band, Alanis Morissette, Lou Reed, Kacy Crowley and Young himself -- rose to the occasion. Other acts, especially Metallica, did not fare so well.
After Young opened the show with "Long May You Run" and "Four Strong Winds," newcomer Crowley played a pleasant but unremarkable set of folk-pop. Next up was Blues Traveler, who delivered a typical set of extended, upbeat jams. The first artist to use the show as an opportunity to stretch out artistically was Reed, who delved into his dark past and apparently brighter future. After playing unadorned versions of "Perfect Day" and the Velvet Underground classic "I'll Be Your Mirror," Reed debuted two songs he wrote for the forthcoming off-Broadway musical "Time Rockers" and read an appropriate poem about finding the brilliance within every child.
Led by the skulking Nosferatu Billy Corgan, the Smashing Pumpkins took advantage of the acoustic format to accentuate the lush melodies found on their magnum opus, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Perhaps a little tired from carousing with the previous night's special guest, Marilyn Manson, the band offered little between-song banter. Corgan took a stab at Young's "Heart of Gold" at one point, but guitarist James Iha quickly reminded him that he didn't know the chord changes. With the informality typical of the Bridge School shows, their set closed with an odd but successful pairing as Blues Traveler's John Popper joined them on harmonica for a sprawling "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans."
In her first public appearance since this summer's Tibetan Freedom Concert, Morissette took advantage of the laid-back atmosphere to debut six songs. After opening with "All I Really Want," the seated singer moved directly into her new tunes, which included "No Pressure Over Cappucino," "Gorgeous," and "You Gave Me a Wink." If the material she played was any indication, her lyrical concerns have matured from giving head at the movies to "speaking French to the taxi driver." And while her shift from angst-ridden dumpee to melancholic songstress might seem dramatic, so was her previous transition from Debbie Gibson sound-alike to angry young woman.
After a stoic solo appearance by the host, Neil Young -- the highlight of which was a new song called "Buffalo Springfield Again," a public plea for a reunion of his old band -- the Dave Matthews Band breathed some Southern-fried life into the tiring crowd. Though the group is clearly the most melodically challenged band since Soundgarden to win widespread acceptance, they proved they can throw down a groove -- even if they came off as lightweight compared to the other acts on the bill.
Expectations ran high for the night's closer, Metallica, and aside from their opening number, the tuneful new song "Low Man's Lyric," the band fell short of them. More accustomed to performing in front of staged pyrotechnics than children, Metallica looked uncomfortable and had trouble filling the sonic gaps they usually bury in layers of distortion. The group recruited Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell to join them in an embarrassing, by-the-numbers version of Lynyrd Skynryd's "Tuesday's Gone," that inspired many in attendance to follow Tuesday's lead and head toward the parking lot.
In keeping with the informal atmosphere, Young took the stage as the house lights went on to thank everyone for coming. And though his gratitude hardly seemed necessary, it was an appropriately heartfelt way to end a concert at which so many top artists left behind their artifice for a good cause.