The crowd was a little restless by the time Tom Waits took the stage at the second night of the Bridge School Benefit. Temperatures were frigid throughout the entire day, but the winds picked up after the sun went down, leaving many folks shivering under their blankets. (They should really think about having this thing about a month earlier.) The Shoreline Ampitheater wasn’t equipped for a crowd of this size, and the food lines seemed like scenes straight out of the Soviet Union circa 1985. Making matters worse, the wait times between sets seemed to grow as the night went on, taking upwards of twenty-five minutes.
But all these issues seemed to vanish the second the lights dimmed and Tom Waits walked onstage. Despite releasing the stellar LP Bad as Me in 2011, he hasn’t played a single concert in over five years. His fans were hungry for a show and he wasn’t going to disappoint. Backed by a killer band featuring Les Claypool on standup bass and David Hidalgo on guitar and accordion, Waits ran through ten songs over a fifty minute set, touching on most every era of his long career.
At first it sounded like Waits has been gargling from same battery acid Bob Dylan has been using recently, but he quickly cleared up and demonstrated surprising range, from his signature growl on the Rain Dogs classic “Singapore” to a gentle rasp on “Lucky Day” to the aching plea of “Tom Traubert’s Blues.” The latter song was particularly devastating, bringing the entire crowd to a hushed silence.
Waits also showed why nobody tops him when it comes to stage banter. “I volunteered to come here,” he said midway through his set. “Long story. Back in the 1970s I borrowed a lot of money from Neil. For me, it was the days of long hair and short money. He loaned it to me so I could start a restaurant. I lost a lot of money on that restaurant. Let me rephrase that, I lost a lot of Neil’s money. And you don’t wanna see Neil mad. Anyway, it was a small, little restaurant, sort of a specialized place. We were gonna have eel and donuts and fish scales, just fish scales, sauteed and all gluten free. But it went under, so Neil said, ‘Listen, you owe me a lot of money, so I have three ideas for you: Jail time or you can come work in my yard, or you can do the Bridge School.'”
He wrapped up with powerful renditions of “Cemetery Polka” from Rain Dogs and “Come On Up to the House” from Mule Variations. The fifty minutes seemed to vanish in an instant, leaving Queens of the Stone Age with an almost impossible act to follow. It’s a tragedy that Tom Waits doesn’t tour more often. Nobody does what he does, and he’s doing it almost better than ever. Why assemble a band this great and rehearse a show this magnificent, only to do it once?
The Tom Waits set was the clear highlight of the night, but My Morning Jacket gave him a good fight. They revived their note-perfect duet with Neil Young on “Harvest Moon” from night one, and followed it up with the Velvet Underground‘s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin”” as a tribute to Lou Reed. Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Jenny Lewis and other performers from the night came onstage for this, leading to a massive campfire-like sing along on the Loaded classic. Surprisingly, they were the only act the entire night to acknowledge Reed’s passing.
Most of the other performers made slight changes to their set from night one. Jenny Lewis ended with a gorgeous solo acoustic rendition of Rilo Kiley’s “Silver Lining,” and Heart brought out Neil Young for a raucous duet on the Harvest Moon deep cut “War of Man.” Fun. had the entire crowd singing along to Queen’s “Somebody to Love,” while Diana Krall returned to the Bob Dylan catalog for a tender take on “Simple Twist of Fate.”
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young played the exact same set from the first night, but this time they seemed more on their game. Nash sang his ass off on “Just a Song Before I Go” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” hadn’t sounded so fresh and alive in years. The brand new Stills track “Don’t Want Lies” is actually light years better than Young’s maudlin “Singer Without a Song,” though Crosby and Nash did everything they could to save that one with pristine back-up vocals.
They once again closed out the night by bringing everybody out for “Teach Your Children.” It’s sad to think that could be the last song that CSNY ever sing together, but it’s an unlikely bet. People have been thinking that every since they broke up in 1971, but against all odds this foursome seems to persevere, even as they begin to enter their 70s. Besides, even if Neil never agrees to another tour, there are always more Bridge School Benefits in then future.