Bridge School Benefit Day 2, with Tom Waits, CSNY, Queens of the Stone Age, My Morning Jacket, Elvis Costello, fun., and more
Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013
Better than: Crying to one's Twitter followers.
There are worse places to have to grapple with the death of Lou Reed than a big rock concert. The sudden departure of the Velvet Underground singer and guitarist Sunday at age 71 cast a bit of a pall over Day 2 of Neil Young's annual Bridge School Benefit concert, but only until the artists confronted it at the end of My Morning Jacket's set.
"We were all very sad to hear of Lou Reed's passing," said singer Jim James, as many in the crowd gasped, apparently hearing the news for the first time. James called Reed "one of the greatest composers, artists, musicians who ever walked the face of the Earth." And then Neil Young, Elvis Costello, My Morning Jacket, and a number of others performed a faithful, tear-jerking rendition of "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'," trading verses and solos as a chilly evening wind blew down into Shoreline. There were many times yesterday where the proceedings at Bridge School sagged, but for that perfect handful of minutes, you felt thankful to be at some denomination of the church where Reed worshiped, surrounded by people who felt the magnitude of his loss.
The Reed tribute was followed by Tom Waits, who grabbed the attention of the amphitheatre from his first utterance and held it tight for 11 songs. Waits hasn't toured properly in five years, so his presence was bound to the highlight of the day -- but even given those expectations, it was incredible. With a band that included Primus' Les Claypool on upright bass, Waits aired songs from last year's excellent Bad As Me, retooling them slightly for the all-acoustic Bridge School. He began with "Raised Right Men," his voice tumbling out in a devilish gurgle, with Waits standing at the mic, his arms fluttering, an exorcism in progress. It was somehow a shock for us, Waits virgins, that his voice really does sound so charcoal and disfigured.
Waits' groaning was the beast leading a band of total beauty, a band that put the other bands of Bridge School to shame with its tightness and swing. The group sketched out a delicate groove on "Talking at the Same Time." On "Cemetery Polka" its skittering plonk fractured into mayhem, effortlessly melted back together, then diverged again. "Chicago" came out as a bitter gust, lighter and quieter but more ghostly than the electric guitar-flecked original. Waits favorites like "Singapore," "Tom Traubert's Blues," and "Lucky Day" were suitably maudlin and desolate. Despite his grimness, Waits is a romantic whose songs make us long for harder, simpler, less equivocal times and places. This romance was in full effect yesterday, with the band's acoustic constraints recalling the American music of the early 20th century. Waits was cast as a timeless storyteller, a living conduit to our rougher, more deeply felt past -- the sort of wizened prophet our pop landscape doesn't produce many of these days.
No one else, except for maybe CSNY, worked with Bridge School's acoustic constraints so well. Queens of the Stone Age followed Waits with a set that was dying for more volume and distortion -- something to counter the band's overabundance of long notes and dull strumming. It felt like Josh Homme and Co. were coxing all possible power out of their guitars and drums because even they knew that acoustic-ness added nothing to songs like "My God Is the Sun." (Homme's quip about how Waits was "fuckin' awesome" seemed like a tacit admission of the difficulty of following him.) My Morning Jacket's first two songs were barely audible over the din of Shoreline's lawn, but "The Way That He Sings" finally woke us up. Elvis Costello joined wife Diana Krall for a few numbers, including a best-of-set "Blame It on Cain." Fun. played mostly hits during its five-song set, and boldly announced ownership of Queen's "Somebody to Love," during which singer Nate Ruess did a pretty good Freddie Mercury.
Most everyone played for about 30 minutes, which, when followed by 20-30 minutes of set-up time, made the day drag. Around 8 p.m., after Waits set, with temperatures plunging and winds battering the amphitheatre, many started tromping toward the exits. The lawn was empty in pockets as CSNY took the stage around 9:30, after what seemed a longer-than-necessary delay. They started off slowly, but things picked up with a lovely version of "Long May You Run," and the extended "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes." The band brought out many of the evening's performers for "Teach Your Children," but by then, the exodus was in full. We'd paid our respects to Lou, and gotten to spend some time with Waits -- and thus spent one amazing hour among many less so at the second day of Bridge School 2013.