San Francisco's Shoreline Amphitheatre was designed to resemble the Grateful Dead's Steal Your Face logo when viewed from above. On the ground level, however, the venue's concourse actually resembles a bridge, in honor of the Bridge School Benefit, which has taken place there for the past 25 years.
The walls are decorated with framed photographs of historical moments from past editions. After this weekend, the wall is going to need some more space – from Beck sitting in with Eddie Vedder to Neil Young sitting in with pretty much everybody, this year was not without its share of podium-worthy performances. Assisting on covers of his own classics, Young played with Arcade Fire ("Helpless"), Mumford & Sons ("Dance, Dance, Dance") and Beck ("Pocahontas"). (Watch Arcade Fire and Young's duet below.) Dave Matthews also enlisted Young on the campfire standard, "Oh! Susanna."
That wasn't entirely unexpected, of course, given that Young hosts the benefit with his wife Pegi. The couple founded the Bridge School in 1986 for children with severe physical and speech impairments. Also participating in the event was their own son, Ben, who appeared onstage throughout the night on a back riser along with his fellow Bridge students. And while Young was technically the headliner, he also kicked off the musical proceedings appropriately with "I Am a Child," followed by a duet with Pegi on the Youngbloods' "Get Together." "We'll play that song again in seven hours," he said. Spoiler alert: He wasn't kidding.
But while Young's surprises were somehow to be expected, Saturday's edition of the two-day affair offered enough true left-fielders from all the artists to keep the audience perpetually on their toes, if not on their feet, for the entire day. With all the bands required to perform acoustically, some artists – such as Beck – reached into their back catalog to find suitable material while others – like Arcade Fire – opted to change their instruments without changing their tunes.
An understated starter set by Devendra Banhart fed into Norah Jones showcasing her new project, the Little Willies. "We started out as a Willie Nelson cover band," Jones said about the potentially implicating – and, hence, damaging – title for the group. "But now those guys have to live with the name." They played old-timey music like it was straight out of a modern western.
For Beck's third Bridge School appearance, he revisited his 2002 album, Sea Change, busting out such beloved nuggets as "Golden Age," "Guess I'm Doing Fine" and "Lost Cause." As he told the audience, it was the first time he performed those songs on stage with some of the original musicians in nearly a decade.
A true Bridge School veteran, Eddie Vedder decided to fly solo for his 10th appearance at the benefit, but not without some help from his friends. He brought Beck back out for a cover of the Everly Brothers' "Sleepless Nights" and also invited Arcade Fire's Régine Chassagne onstage to help sing "Tonight You Belong to Me" – a traditional American tune which, like "Sleepless Nights," also appears on Vedder's recent album Ukulele Songs.
"I was thinking to start with a Neil Young song," Vedder said at the beginning of his set. "He's got a lot of them." But after mucking the beginning of Young's "Don't Cry No Tears," he temporarily abandoned it, moving onto the Beatles' catalog instead for a sing-along version of "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away."
Certainly Vedder's original material – including a couple proper Pearl Jam songs ("Just Breathe" and "Porch") – received an enthusiastic response, but if crowd reactions serve as democratic votes, Saturday really belonged to Mumford & Sons. Ironically, the British folksters were the first band to actually rock out, despite an earlier Latin-based groove set from Los Invisibles (which featured Carlos Santana and his wife Cindy Blackman Santana).
Frontman Marcus Mumford said, almost bashfully, "This whole evening is a bit of a strange thing for us to wrap our heads around." But he wasn't talking about the benefit – he was talking about the benefactor. Following Young's guest appearance on "Dance, Dance, Dance" (a song they cover on the reg), Mumford invited Arcade Fire's Marika Shaw and Sarah Neufeld onstage to perform fiddle on "Awake My Soul."
"How do you follow Mumford & Sons?" Dave Matthews asked the crowd earnestly. For his fifth Bridge School appearance, Matthews enlisted his longtime acoustic partner, guitar wiz Tim Reynolds, for a set that drew largely from Dave Matthews Band hits, including "Save Me," "Crush" and a genuinely rousing version of "Two Step."
While the night's more poignant moments were almost exclusively connected to the Bridge School cause, Arcade Fire did introduce their political track, "Intervention," by dedicating it to "all those people camped out in front of our hotel, hoping that in some way this country can change, somehow." A peaceful warrior himself, Young would've almost certainly approved of the nod to the Occupy movement, despite the deviated message. Talking of deviations, Arcade Fire seemed nearly uncomfortable performing in an all-acoustic setup. "Sorry if we're playing too loud," frontman Win Butler said, apologetically, after a foot-stomping run through "Wake Up" provided one of the more energetic – and, hence, energizing – moments of the day. Nobody was complaining.
At the conclusion of a busy evening performing his songs with other bands, Young finally emerged solo around midnight for a headlining set that touched upon well-chosen songs from his vast back catalog. Dedicating "Sugar Mountain" to the Bridge School kids, he often played facing the students instead of the audience and frequently sang directly to his son, Ben. "Comes a Time," "Heart of Gold," and "Long May You Run" all took on additional dimensions given the setting and circumstance.
In keeping with tradition at these Bridge School concerts, Young brought out an ensemble for the encore that included most of the artists on the lineup. As promised, they performed the day's second rendition of the Youngbloods' "Get Together."
Dave Matthews summed it up earlier when he said, simply, "This is a good night." Turning to face the students, he nearly whispered, "Thank you to all the kids who inspire us." Many in the audience might care to add, "...and the artists, too."