The Bridge School Benefit Concert is a two-day event held annually in the fall at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountainview, CA (just outside of San Francisco). It is a non-profit charity concert organized by legendary musician Neil Young with proceeds going to the Bridge School, which assists children with severe physical impairments and complex communication needs. The tradition began back in 1986 with performers such as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen. Appearances since them have ranged from Elvis Costello, to The Pretenders, to Billy Idol, to Metallica, to Willie Nelson, to the Who. What makes this two-day event every year unique is that all of the performances are acoustic.
The impromptu journey of the Bridge School pilgrimage began in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. An all-day drive through western Colorado and Utah gave way to an evening in Salt Lake City visiting bars such as the Ship of Fools, amongst others. Picking up the trail of Interstate 80 west, the journey continued to another stop-over and a ‘too strange to ‘discuss’ evening in Reno, Nevada (The Biggest Little City in the World). Already weary from the road and not knowing what to expect from seeing the Bridge School Concert for the first time, we proceeded farther west. A room at the Holiday Inn, Old Town, and a plethora of Jesus freaks encapsulated the evening in Sacramento, California. The journey there was almost complete. After a short stop-off in Lake Tahoe, an early afternoon arrival at the W Hotel in Silicon Valley set the stage for what was to come; one of the most amazing concert experiences one could ever experience.
Shoreline Amphitheatre is situated a few miles off of the main highway. It isn’t particularly close to anything, but its own dirt parking lot. It’s an outdoor amphitheatre like many others across the United States. The stage is situated at the bottom on a large incline that looks up into a sea of seats covered by an upward-angled roof. A festival lawn continues to elevate behind the seats all the way to the very back of venue. On both sides of the lawn and seating area, one can find the usual things such as food vendors, beer vendors, and artist merchandise.
The lineup for the 20th anniversary Bridge School Concert was phenomenal. Devendra Banhart, Gillian Welch, Death Cab for Cutie, Trent Reznor, Foo Fighters, Brian Wilson, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, and Neil Young. All unplugged. Needless to say, an early arrival was necessary. It was a surprisingly brisk October day in northern California. Not freezing, but cold. After consuming a ridiculous amount of beer already on the journey, it was time to switch to margaritas. As Death Cab of Cutie was finishing up their night one set, which included songs such as “Soul Meets Body, “ What Sarah Said, “ and “Movie Script Ending” (no “New Year” unfortunately) a frozen margarita was in hand.
The temperature outside at this concert was referenced earlier. Couple that with bare hands wrapped around a plastic cup filled with frozen margarita slush, and a non-stop body shiver is the result. Freezing hands, body shakes, and seeing one’s breath in the air in a month as early as October couldn’t have prepared anyone for the utter weirdness that occurred next in the lineup. When one thinks ‘Trent Reznor,’ things cross the mind such as Nine Inch Nails, lyrics such as “I wanna f&%k you like an animal,” and a man covered in mud screaming “bow down before the one you serve!” Those are common thoughts when referencing Trent Reznor. However, instead picture this: That Nine Inch Nails guy sitting at a grand piano beside of a classical string quartet. Yes, that just happened.
The audience in Mountainview was treated to a dark and brooding set that was, at the same time, uplifting and beautiful. It was every contradiction of terms possible. The instrumentation was only piano and strings, yet the first uttered lyrics “I hurt myself today” was enough to send chills up the spine of anyone who listened to rock music at all in the 1990s. The arrangements were as dynamic as they could possibly be with as many ups and downs as a Lifetime movie about snorting Ritalin. The high point of Reznor’s set was the acoustic arrangement of “Something I Can Never Have” from Nine Inch Nails’ record “Pretty hate Machine.” As dark as the set was, it was still daylight outside. That didn’t stop the almost full already Shoreline Amphitheatre from chanting along the lyrics “Grey would be the color, if I had a heart…..Come on tell me. You make this all go away; you make this all go away!” It was absolutely surreal to witness, and to be that early in the bill, one of the standout performances of the whole two-day event.
As dusk came, so did the Foo Fighters. It’s safe to say that not many people knew what to expect. The Foo Fighters have a lot of songs, most of which are plugged in, loud, power pop gems. How would they translate to a stripped down acoustic setting? To answer in one word: masterfully. With extra musicians on the stage such as Pat Smear, a piano player, a female backup singer (Petra Hayden), and a triangle player, The Foo Fighters played completely new arrangements of their popular songs. They, in a sense, made brand new songs out of the ones they already had. Songs such as “Everlong” and “My Hero” became musically dynamic anthems rather than just rock songs. The highlight of their set came with a re-arranged version of “Big Me” with female backing vocals, performed in cut-time. The audience was blown away from the ‘new’ versions of these songs and the Foo Fighters were extremely well received. It was the introduction of another side of the band completely that had previously never been seen. The experiment went so well, the Foo Fighters did an acoustic tour and live acoustic album shortly after this performance.
As if the audience was eating a meal at the Emperor’s Palace in ancient Rome, it was time now for the seventh course. Enter Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys as nightfall came upon Shoreline Amphitheatre. It was going to be another spot on the bill in which the audience had no idea what to expect. Clutching yet another freezing cold margarita, so cold the napkin actually froze to the plastic cup, the first triplet drums notes rang out to begin one of the greatest songs ever laid down on wax. That song is “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” The sounds of summer (or maybe Pet Sounds) rattled the venue while a roar of applause welcomed the unmistakable harmony and California sound that nobody has ever been able to duplicate properly; a Beach Boys song. Personally, being a generation late (the dreaded ‘Generation X’), getting to hear songs such as this live was not only a musical gift; but also a privilege. Brian Wilson gave the audience an incredible set of Beach Boys classic such as “Sloop John B” as well as “Good Vibrations.” What could possibly come next?
Drawing closer to the nightcap came the band that has returned and played the Bridge School Benefit more times than anyone else who has ever been in the lineup, Pearl Jam. Just coming off of an extensive world tour in support of the self-titled release earlier that year in 2006, these guys were definitely ready for a sit-down show. As road-weary as they were, there was no lack of the signature intensity they bring to the stage every single night they perform. They opened their set with an aggressive cover of Bob Dylan’s anti-war, anti-politician anthem “Masters of War.” It’s a song Pearl Jam has covered many times in the past, and also a song that front-man Eddie Vedder always delivers with a level of anger than isn’t present in the folk-based version of Bob Dylan’s original. Their set continued with rarities such as “Around the Bend,” the track that closed their 1996 album “No Code.” Neil Young joined them on stage to perform a track from Neil Young’s album “Mirrorball” (an album in which Pearl Jam was his backing band) called “Throw Your Hatred Down.” A moving acoustic arrangement of “Black” from their debut album “Ten” closed out their set. The ending was extended that included a crowd chant of the wandering ending of the song “dododo dodo dodo” as well as Eddie Vedder stretching his voice to falsetto status as the song faded. It was nothing less than an incredible set from a band that changes their set list every single night.
Next was a point in the evening that every fair-weather music fan in the crowd loved, the entrance of Dave Matthews Band. As incredibly talented as they are, they have a fan-base that is largely (not by any means completely) dominated by people who know very little about music in general, but know that Dave Matthews Band is a ‘cool’ and ‘acceptable’ band to like. Therefore one can see the random wanna-be gangsta white boy chanting “DMB DMB!” while throwing up gang signs and sorority girls saying “Like, OMG, I totally love DMB!”
To the real point at hand, the Dave Matthews Band took the stage and assumed the role of flooring the audience from their first note. Matthews, who audibly was battling a cold, sounded fantastic. From songs on night one such as “Grace is Gone,” Warehouse,” and crowd favorite “Ants Marching,” the band, coupled with the ever-brilliant drumming of Cater Beauford, took it completely home for everyone who had performed earlier in the day. They were tight, energetic, and with adding a trumpet player to the band, magnificent. Neil Young joined them on stage for a cover of Young’s classic “Cortez the Killer.” It was incredibly long, but didn’t get boring and drone on for half an hour (like one would hear at a Widespread Panic show). Their set was only five songs, all of which were extended, but what it lacked in numerical value, it gained in musicianship and showmanship.
Every Bridge School show ends with Neil Young (or a variation of a Neil Young Band) closing out the night. His short set included songs such as “Going Back,” “Harvest Moon,” and “After the Garden.” They were all delivered in true Neil Young fashion; earnest, clean, and errorless. He brought many of the day’s artists on stage for an encore of his hit “Rockin’ In the Free World.”
Every moment of the 2006 Bridge School Concert was impressive from early in the afternoon to “Rockin’ in the Free World” at 11pm. Day two featured the same artists demonstrating again why they were (and still are) the absolute masters of their craft. Set lists varied somewhat from day one into day two. The Foo Fighters added “Cold Day in the Sun” and “Skin and Bones” (to which they would later title their acoustic live album). Pearl Jam added “Parachutes,” “Man of the Hour,” the impromptu “I Used to Work in Chicago,” a cover of Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame,” and a guitar solo-filled version of Victoria Williams’ “Crazy Mary.” Dave Matthews also changed their set list on night two to include opening with “Crash Into Me” as well as “Jimi Thing,” “Too Much,” “Tripping Billies,” and Neil Young joining them for “Down by the River.”
As exhausting as it is to attend a ‘marathon’ type concert such as this, the annual Bridge School Concert is well worth it, and the one to attend. Now in its 26th year in 2012, this concert has never lacked an abundance of talent, charisma, and inspiration brought by the children in attendance that the proceeds benefit. It’s truly a special event that every rock music fan must attend at least once on their ‘concert bucket-list.’
The Bridge School is a setting in which bands can take a break from their normal routine, sit down together, and take chances. Shoreline is a large amphitheatre, but the mood and atmosphere of the Bridge School Concert makes a large venue seem like a living room filled with acoustic guitars. If it wasn’t for the Bridge School, would we have ever got to hear Metallica play a song like “Celebrate” or Pearl Jam try out “Nothing as it Seems” for the first time. We would never have experienced Marilyn Manson and Smashing Pumpkins play “Eye” together. We may have never known how amazing it sounds to hear bands such as The Who, Mazzy Star, Green Day, Ben Harper, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers stripped down and unplugged.
The Bridge School pilgrimage continued on the journey back east. We took the Pacific Coast Highway all the way to Santa Barbara, then into Los Angeles, CA, to Interstate 15 to Las Vegas, NV, and farther east back to Glenwood Springs, CO (all without sleeping). It was a road trip that will never be forgotten due to its experiences, extremes, and most importantly the gift of music that it gave.
Many tracks spanning the history of the Bridge School Concerts are available on iTunes in three separate Bridge School Collections. Proceeds benefit the Bridge School.
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Dustin M Pardue