"It's kinda hard to know what song to play these days 'cause every word sounds different than it did before," said Neil Young, following a perfectly chosen and rendered rendition of the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" during his show-closing set with Crazy Horse at Saturday's 15th Anniversary Bridge School Benefit at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountainview, California.
Referring to the events of September 11th, Young used every bit of his allotted time onstage this year -- from his two-song opening to the all-star jam bookending the day's entertainment -- to deliver his unwavering, though not necessarily popular, peacenik message to the sold-out crowd who gathered to hear a stellar lineup raise money for the Bay Area school for children with severe learning disabilities (which Young's son attends).
Instead of his usual collection of rearranged versions of kid and family-appropriate garage folk classics, Young tailored a set that shot directly at the heart while confronting the national tragedy and life afterward. Just as he used his time last month on the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon to wage peace with his reading of John Lennon's "Imagine," on this night Young again chose another songwriter's work to bring his agenda back home by performing Bob Dylan's anti-war epic, "Blowin' in the Wind." Twice.
Young also unearthed "Mideast Vacation" (from his obscure '86 album, Life, with its lines "Travellin' with my family in the Mideast late one night/They chanted death to America, I was feeling like a fight") complete with air raid siren sound effects and "yippee ki-oh" choruses by Young's wife Pegi and sister Astrid. He played "Long May You Run" in its original upbeat country-folk version (his formerly funereal pump organ rearrangement has been temporarily retired), a jangly "Love and Only Love" and the organ hymn, "Mother Earth."
Young, band and the all-star jammers left the stage nearly eight hours after Pegi, co-organizer of the event, opened by thanking the audience for selling out the weekend's two shows, given current events. She introduced her husband and he laid a song down for the kids, his multi-versed fountain of youth anthem, "Sugar Mountain." He followed with "Blowin' in the Wind," armed only with acoustic guitar, simultaneously setting his personal agenda for the evening and a musical tone for the rest of the concert, which traditionally features acoustic performances by otherwise electric performers who stretch out with rearrangments and covers.
"I never thought Neil Young would open for me," joked Jill Sobule when Young ushered her onstage. Dressed like a cheerleader in a flounced mini-skirt and tennis shoes, the singer exuded incredible charisma, humor and crowd control as she dashed through a set of her own wordy songs and a Destiny's Child cover. Ben Harper followed, alternately sounding like Bob Marley and Cat Stevens as he slide-guitared his way through "Momma's Got a Girlfriend Now" and Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" (an odd choice at the kid-centric concert).
Billy Idol with his band of motorcycle boys, including black leather clad Steve Stevens on guitar, was a welcome shot of rock & roll after the folky start. The Bridge kids on the riser at the rear of the stage went nuts for the old waver's broad antics and big beat, from the rocked-up, seat-buzzing bass sound of "Rock the Cradle" to a fist-pumping "Rebel Yell," and an acoustic guitar rendition of "White Wedding," wherein Stevens nailed the song's intricate parts on one acoustic guitar. Idol's rendition of the old Buffalo Springfield hit "For What It's Worth" hit hard (even though he mistakenly credited the song to Young -- it was written by old band mate Stephen Stills) when he infused it with the urgency of the original and the hip-hop beat of Public Enemy's "He Got Game" (which appropriated the famous guitar line). Tracy Chapman was left with the unenviable task of following the spectacle, but her humility shone through as she performed "Fast Car" and "Give Me One Reason" to a rapt audience.
The show finally hit stride when just after dark, a six-piece R.E.M. lit up the stage mixing new ("Imitation of Life," "All the Way to Reno") with chestnuts ("The One I Love"). "Cuyahoga," one of R.E.M.'s rare songs from the Eighties about something discernable (environmental destruction), was recast as a song about life after September 11th. Among the band's rare live appearances this year, the varied set indicated a new era for the band who lost its way after the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997; no-longer-new members Joey Waronker, Scott McCaughey and Ken Stringfellow have grown into the collective energy of the band. Most pleasingly, "Michael Stipe" is gone, having been replaced by Michael Stipe, the band's originally charming front man who cracked up at his flubbed line as he opened "Losing My Religion."
It was wise to throw on the crowd-pleasing Dave Matthews (who among his own songs threw in an abbreviated "All Along the Watchtower") between the re-charged R.E.M. and Pearl "The Reason Everyone Came" Jam; without the diversion, the temptation to A/B the two mega-alterna bands rather than review them individually would be too great.
But Pearl Jam, in their fifth Bridge concert appearance and sit-down set, had the edge on R.E.M. in etiquette and familiarity. The band hadn't played together for a year, as Eddie Vedder noted, "It's nice to play, nice to see each other and nice to see you all -- safe." And though Stipe played to the Bridge kids, Vedder did one better and dedicated "Last Kiss" to one of them, going as far as to recount the personal history of one Bridge alumni who's gone on to study at UC Berkeley, pecking her on the cheek as he left the stage. As if it isn't enough that the band takes on ticket conglomerates and bootlegs their own live shows for fans, they extended their generosity for charity: They gave the people what they wanted ("Better Man," "Of the Girl," "Daughter," a duet with Ben Harper on "Indifference," the rare "Driftin'") and still spent their short allotment of time performing other people's material (Victoria Williams' "Crazy Mary," John Lennon's "Give Me Some Truth"). They even dropped an untitled new song on which Vedder blew some harp.
The Bridge show, with its cavalcade-of-stars lineup, traditionally attracts its share of celebrity attendees: Sean Penn, Robin Wright Penn and Lars Ulrich watched from box seats, while Laura Dern stood stage right during Harper's set, cradling the couple's newborn.
At the end of the night, all performers assembled for a sing-along version of "Imagine." Astrid and Pegi Young held cue cards for the crowd to follow and everyone from Vedder to Harper and R.E.M's McCaughey made the rounds, embracing each other as if to say, "We pulled it off!" or, "We made it out alive!" What's done was done. And if they have their way, Neil and Pegi Young will do it all again next year, in peacetime.