After the deluge that soaked the Bay Area on Saturday, the skies closed Sunday just in time for the start of the second day of Neil Young’s annual Bridge School Benefit at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, Calif., at which he is traditionally opener and headliner. However, his friends Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were the undisputed stars of the show, which also featured Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Dave Matthews Band, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck, Foo Fighters and Tegan and Sara.
Starting with three solo acoustic songs from Buffalo Springfield days — “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong,” “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” and a melancholy version of “Mr. Soul” — Young, wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt and sheepskin vest, acted as MC and Mr. Congeniality for the proceedings. He introduced the first act, dueling guitar and voice duo Tegan and Sara as “friends from the Canadian prairie who are about the same age as I was when I wrote those songs.”
After a short set by the twins, the Foo Fighters, led by Dave Grohl in a wooly hat, started off timidly with a guitar, harmonica and percussive version of “Big Me.” “We’re not used to this singin’ pretty thing. We’re more used to singin’ our…heads off,” said the singer, tempering his normally colorful language as well as his band’s usual brand of bash and pop, presumably for the Bridge School kids, children with severe learning disabilities who filled the dais behind him and whose school would profit from the concert. Grohl then proceeded to shout the lyrics to “Breakout” ’til his face turned visibly red. He sheepishly dedicated his final solo acoustic song, “Everlong,” to Young, “for inspiring me to play music, so there you go.”
Beck also offered up an homage to Young during what was a considerably scaled down show for him compared to what he’s been up to on his Midnite Vultures tour. There was none of his signature splits or robot dancing; instead, Beck was the artist of the day who took the task of coming up with an acoustic set most seriously. Calling in Smokey Hormel to add banjo and guitar, he used the opportunity to play rarely performed songs from Mutations, the folkie album he didn’t tour behind. The eight-piece band (the back up singers sat out this one) breezed through “Tropicalia” as well as more somber and experimental versions of “Sing It Again,” “Static” and “O Maria.” He tackled the moody “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” solo acoustic, adding a Youngian harmonica break, while Young watched, rapt at the side of the stage. Beck and Co. closed out the set with “Jackass,” retitled “Burro” for the day, sung in Spanish. Muy bueno.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers, another act not exactly known for their restraint, followed with an uncharacteristically subdued and well-thought-out set. The foursome appeared seated as singer Anthony Kiedis quipped, “Seasoned acoustic veterans, show number two,” before kicking off with the title song, among others, from the recent album Californication. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young fan Flea talked up the band’s set from the day before and in a final surprise, their set-closer was a ragged but sincere version of the old Cat Stevens number “Trouble.”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers turned in an impeccable set, drawing from their songbook of hit singles as well as from the blues standards they’ve come to include in their freewheeling but incredibly proficient live shows. Perhaps the world’s greatest bar band, the Heartbreakers specialize in crowd-pleasing rock and roll without ever succumbing to lowest common denominator schtick or sacrificing artistry. Before a stomping, “I Won’t Back Down,” Petty explained George W. Bush’s attempt to use it for his campaign and his subsequent refusal. “He asked me and I said, ‘You’re not gonna hang that on me.'” From a funked-up “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” to a woozy slide blues “Little Red Rooster” and the rarely performed “To Find a Friend,” the Heartbreakers delivered showmanship combined with extreme humility, a rare feat indeed.
Quite the opposite was the case with the Dave Matthews Band’s longwinded set. Doing his leprechaun dance, which drew cheers, Matthews, looking like Tom Hanks with his crooked smile, had barrels of sweat dripping from him as he jammed and jammed and jammed through his same-sounding songs. Young joined him on guitar and vocal for an undynamic “Cortez the Killer”; this, just after the DMB had slain “All Along the Watchtower.”
Finally, it was time for Young himself, appearing with “friends and family.” It was the same lineup Young had taken on his Silver and Gold tour: Spooner Oldham, keyboards; Ben Keith, slide; Jim Keltner, drums; Donald Duck Dunn, bass and Pegi and Astrid Young on vocals. An equal mix of Silver and Gold material and classics like “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold” all boasted the prominent slide of Keith, which gave the songs a similar, country-feel. By far the highlight of the set was a long acoustic blues jam of “Tonight’s the Night,” with Young at the piano and Oldham at the pump organ.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young served as the grand finale and, though they were dogged by guitar trouble and feedback throughout the beginning of their set, it wasn’t without its moments: a strong “Cinnamon Girl,” a lovely “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and a Young-less vocal tour de force on the threesome’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” accompanied only by Stills on guitar.
The stage was short on stars for the traditional “all-star jam”: only Steve Ferrone of the Heartbreakers hung around to add percussion, while Astrid and Pegi Young also returned for “Love the One You’re With.” It was just as well — within five minutes of the seven-and-a-half-hour concert ending, the skies opened up one more time and departing concertgoers were treated to a well-timed downpour.