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Monday, October 26, 2015

Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit Concert Turns 29 with Help From The Dixie Chicks, Ryan Adams, and More

Posted By on Mon, Oct 26, 2015 at 11:42 AM

  • Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group

Neil Young + the Promise of the Real
The Dixie Chicks
Sheryl Crow
Ben Harper
Ryan Adams
St. Vincent
Gary Clark Jr.
The Shoreline
October 25, 2015

Better than: anything else you could possibly spend $20 on.

Forget who’s on the bill, or that the Shoreline is an absolute slog to get to. Make peace with the damp seating of the lawn, and the fact that you’ll most likely be watching bands via a hanging screen instead of squinting at the stage. None of these things matter. What does matter is the cause at hand, the unique array of music that surprises and impresses each year, and best of all, a chance to remember how lucky we are to share our home with one of the best performers on the planet.

For the past 29 years, rocker Neil Young and his (now) ex-wife Peggi Young have brought every conceivable type of musician to the Shoreline Ampitheatre for a sprawling, acoustic day of music. That the concerts benefit the Bridge School, an institution started by the Youngs that helps physically challenged children find ways to communicate through technology, makes every moment of each Bridge concert that much more meaningful. Every artist donates their time, unplugs, and often brings covers, other performers from the line-up, or Young himself to enhance their set. Sunday’s installment was another worthy chapter in the Bridge School Benefit Concert’s living legacy.

While not every band can make the transition to acoustic without losing some of their bite, Britt Daniels and the rest of Spoon sounded sharp and focused during their early afternoon set. Tearing through staples like “I Summon You” and “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb,” the boys from Austin made the most of their limited time on stage, even finding room to sneak in a brass section to compliment their single “The Underdog.” In keeping with Bridge tradition, Spoon also delivered a delightful cover of Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said,” a testament to the strength of Daniels’ vocal delivery and a welcome start to the day’s festivities.

The mystery of what St. Vincent would sound like unplugged was finally resolved when Annie Clark took the stage with a couple of bandmates and tore into “Digital Witness.” The jarring sting of her arrangements carried through in the acoustic setting, anchored by Clark’s voice and the emotive guitar lines at the center of her songs. While it’s only fair to note that St. Vincent will always best be seen at night, indoors, headlining a venue she can sonically burn to the ground, Clark’s recent turns at the Outside Lands Festival in August and Bridge School on Sunday are proof that as long as she has a guitar and some people to listen, she’s going to slay.

  • Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group
The day was not kind to Taylor Swift fans. Ryan Adams, most recently in the press for his full-length cover album of Swift’s 1989, missed a great chance to break out a few of the best numbers from his tribute to Queen Taylor. Instead, he played from his own impressively long discography, alone with his guitar at center stage. Tracks like “Oh My Sweet Carolina” and “Ashes and Fire” gave Adams the chance to showcase his qualifications to be a Bridge School Benefit Concert regular, as every song of his set soared in the acoustic confines of the show. Finishing things off, Adams paid tribute to the Grateful Dead with a cover of “Wharf Rat.”

Gary Clark Jr. took a break from his duties opening shows on the Foo Fighter’s latest tour to bring his soulful rock to the Shoreline stage. His set was much like the one offered by Ben Harper later in the day. Both have wisdom in their voices, love in their words, and a message to impart. Harper is a regular to the Bridge School concerts, owing in equal parts to the passion of his songs, which sound as though they are almost meant to be played in such a setting, and his enduring generosity and compassion for the cause at hand. There is no need for hyperbole when discussing the Bridge School – everyone who plays on the institution’s behalf is truly worthy of any and all praise they receive. When Harper closed his set with a cover of “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young — a song that very band had played at Bridge back in 2005 — it was an endearing reminder of the bonds formed between generations of musicians (and a warning shot to CSNY to keep their act tight because boy did Harper nail it).

The final acts on Sunday night ahead of Young’s annual closing set were Sheryl Crow and The Dixie Chicks. Crow came first, and after kicking things off with her hits “A Change Would Do You Good” and “If It Makes You Happy,” she brought the Dixie Chicks to the stage for “Strong Enough.” The song, which in many ways could’ve been penned by either artist, soared with Martie Maguire’s fiddle work and the guest vocals of singer Natalie Maines. Following that collaboration, Crow began another, recruiting Annie Clark (whom she introduced as a “redonkulous talent”) to return to the stage to play “Riverwide.” Alas, Clark’s microphone was woefully low in the mix, but her guitar shined through.

While the crowd was receptive to every act that performed, no artist received the welcome that the Dixie Chicks were greeted with when they took the stage. Seldom seen since a self-imposed hiatus that began in 2008, the trio didn’t lose a step as they worked through hits like “The Long Way Around” and “Goodbye Earl.” Their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” was as prescient and gorgeous as it’s always been, but it was another cover that was unquestionably one of the day’s highlights.

“We always like to do a cover,” said Maines, and that was all the introduction they gave before launching into a haunting, restrained take on Lana del Rey’s “Video Games.” It was an unexpected choice, but the result was stunning. They also brought Sheryl Crow and St. Vincent back on stage for “Truth No. 2,” continuing the great collective atmosphere cultivated during Crow’s set.

And then there was Neil Young.

One of the great tragedies of the Bridge School Benefit Concerts is regular attendees leaving before Young closes out the show. Spoiled by his presence every year, they don’t see a need to stick around. This is borderline criminal. It is a privilege to see an artist of Young’s caliber, and there’s nothing routine or expected about his performances. While cherished classics like “Sugar Mountain” and “Harvest Moon” often make his setlists, seeing a legend in the flesh should always be cause for celebration. Young has differentiated his Bridge School performances by playing not only as himself, but also with Crazy Horse, occasionally as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and once as the reunited Buffalo Springfield.

For this year’s shows, he was joined by the Promise of the Real, a band featuring Micah and Lukas Nelson, two of Willie Nelson’s sons and talented musicians in their own right. Lukas took lead vocals on a cover of Kurt Weill’s “September Song.” His voice was a deadringer for his father’s, and it was nice to see Young cede the spotlight to an artist he clearly holds immense respect for. After eight songs that included several politically charged numbers like “Big Box” and achingly poignant “One of These Days,” Young invited all the artists who performed during the day to retake the stage for a sing-along rendition of “Who’s Going to Stand Up?” off his 2014 album Storytone. It was a celebratory climax to one of the Bay Area’s great musical institutions. Long may it run.

Critic’s Notebook:

- For the love of God, please stop complaining about the lineups every year on music blogs and comment sections. This concert is a benefit for severely disabled children. Neil Young gets the best talent available to donate their time, and even if the show was just Neil by himself, it would be well worth the ticket price. Sure, some years are more stacked with talent than others, but my goodness is it beside the point.

- St. Vincent was busy. Aside from her own set, she guested with both Sheryl Crow and The Dixie Chicks, two unlikely collaborations that produced some of the evening’s most memorable moments.

- Sadly, no Bridge School show I’ve ever attended seemed less crowded than Sunday’s show. Hopefully the Shoreline is packed next year when the concert celebrates its 30 year anniversary. 
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About The Author

Zack Ruskin

Zack Ruskin

Zack was born in San Francisco and never found a reason to leave. He has written for Consequence of Sound, The Believer, The Millions, and The Rumpus. He is still in search of a Bort license plate.

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