At approximately 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, a member of the Shoreline Amphitheatre security detail radioed his co-workers to inform them that Guns N’ Roses’ tour bus had arrived at the venue. Now, Axl Rose isn’t exactly known to be punctual, so for him to arrive at a venue with the sun still out, there must be a good reason. And there was: GNR, along with Jack White, the Flaming Lips and Ray LaMontagne, up-and-comers like Gary Clark Jr. and Foster the People, and songstresses k.d. lang, Sarah McLachlan, and Lucinda Williams were all scheduled to perform at the Mountain View venue for the first night of Neil Young’s annual Bridge School benefit concert, now in its 26th year of raising money for children with speech and physical impairments.
If Rose did arrive at 4 p.m., he made it in time to see Young himself open the festivities by performing “Sugar Mountain” to the Bridge School students and their families, who sat in the rafters immediately behind the stage for the entirety of the nearly nine-hour show. Young then invited his wife Pegi to join him on a poignant, gorgeous rendition of “Comes a Time.” Eight hours and a dozen acts later, Young, this time joined by Crazy Horse, would return to the stage.
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Gary Clark Jr. had the unenviable role of following Young and playing for the masses of concertgoers finding their seats or spots on the lawn after the mile-long walk from the parking lot. After setting the tone for the night with spirited performances of “When My Train Pulls In” and “Don’t Owe You a Thang,” Clark’s set was unfortunately cut short after three songs due to the tight scheduling. Foster the People likely encountered the same situation when their turn arrived later on: They performed a handful of tracks, including the hit “Don’t Stop (Color the Walls),” but “Pumped Up Kicks” didn’t make the cut.
After four hours of music – including an irresistible and funny set by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers – it was time for the Flaming Lips, who would perhaps be the most handcuffed by the Bridge School’s all-acoustic doctrine. No matter, Wayne Coyne had a secret weapon: Comedian and human beat box Reggie Watts, who replicated every deep bass, 808, and spacey sound effect on “Fight Test,” “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” and “It’s Summertime.” To close out their set, the Lips stunned the crowd with a cover of the Beatles’ epic “A Day in the Life,” featuring Coyne and Watts sharing vocal duties (with the comedian blatantly reading the lyrics off his cell phone).
Next up was Jack White and his all-female backing band, who helped make the Blunderbuss-heavy material sound as though it was being interpreted by the Rolling Thunder Revue. White wrapped up his 30-minute set with a pair of White Stripes classics: A rollicking, country-fried version of “Hotel Yorba” and the tender “We’re Going to Be Friends.”
After White’s set, there was a longer-than-usual break before the next scheduled act, Guns N’ Roses. The crowd, already uneasy from the chilly weather, was growing restless. Some audience members audibly wondered whether Axl was about to sabotage the Bridge School benefit with his now-infamous antics. However, the delay was due to what ended up being the night’s biggest surprise: an unexpected performance by Pearl Jam frontman and Neil Young acolyte Eddie Vedder.
The audience immediately burst into revelry. “This is the last place I thought I’d be when I woke up today . . . opening for Guns N’ Roses,” Vedder joked before launching into “Last Kiss,” which he said was a favorite of one of the Bridge School students. He followed that up with “Elderly Woman,” and with the crowd now in hysterics from his surprise performance, he quickly exited to let GNR take the stage.
If an all-acoustic concert seems like the perfect setting for GNR to focus on the back half of their EP Lies, that same notion didn’t escape Axl: Three of the seven songs GNR performed were culled from that disc: Set opener “You’re Crazy” (with Axl dropping the F-bomb in front of an audience of children no less than five times), “Used to Love Her,” and “Patience.” The remainder of the set was rounded out by exhilarating, fresh takes on Appetite for Destruction‘s three biggest singles, “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Paradise City.” Credit also has to go to GNR’s army of guitarists – especially DJ Ashba and Bumblefoot – for involving the Bridge School kids in the performance.
Finally, it was time for the Godfather of Grunge, Neil Young. Like the majority of shows on this current Young trek, the Bridge School set list focused on material from his upcoming Psychedelic Pill, albeit in acoustic form, from the autobiographical “Born in Ontario” to the Dylan/Grateful Dead tribute “Twisted Road” and a tight, truncated rendition of the mammoth “Ramada Inn.” Alongside old favorites like “Powderfinger” and “The Needle and the Damage Done,” Neil did throw some curve balls: The unreleased “Singer Without a Song,” featuring Young on piano, resurfaced once again, and Crazy Horse busted out “Like a Hurricane,” which hadn’t been played at the Shoreline Amphitheatre for nearly a decade.
That track set the stage for the evening’s final performance, the traditional all-star jam. Vedder, White, Coyne, Watts, Foster the People, everybody – except Axl – joined Young for a rousing rendition of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” its mantra echoing in the heads of thousands of satisfied music fans as they journeyed back toward the parking lots, eager to experience the whole event again on Sunday.