It's not every day that Neil Young, Pearl Jam, Elton John & Leon Russell, Buffalo Springfield and a dozen other renowned rockers gather on the same stage for a weekend-long jam, but at the 24th Annual Bridge School Benefit (Oct. 23-24) in Mountain View, Calif., the pairings of great musicians were everywhere, all in support of Young's Bridge School for severely disabled children.
Shoreline Amphitheater filled slowly on Saturday because of the chilly, unrelenting drizzle that persisted all weekend, but the lawn-sitters who dallied in their cars missed Neil Young's two-song welcome, "Sugar Mountain" and "Comes A Time," as well as a solid, plaintive brief set from Grizzly Bear. By the time Modest Mouse and its copious acoustic guitars and fiddles kicked up the tempo, the venue was full.
On Saturday, once Emmylou Harris turned up to duet with Elvis Costello everyone in the amphitheater was paying attention, paving the way for inspired sets from Lucinda Williams (who played a superlative "Born To Be Loved"), Kris Kristofferson (who drew cheers for his "Me and Bobbie McGee" and asked for prayers for an ailing Merle Haggard, who wasn't well enough to perform), and Jackson Browne with David Lindley. Billy Idol got people onto their feet, but it was the San Francisco Giants' win over the Philadelphia Phillies for the National League pennant that made the whole place erupt during "Rebel Yell."
Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder made a passing reference to its 20th Anniversary the night before (joking that they'd only have made it to "five or six years if Uncle Neil hadn't been looking after us"), but the Seattle band downplayed that milestone on both nights of Bridge in favor of giving shout-outs to the Bridge School students they've seen thrive over the eight times they've played the benefit through the years, as well as delivering crowd-rousing sets full of rarities ("Santa Cruz," "Other Side"), new covers (Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot"), rave ups with Neil Young (on his new "Walk With Me") and great new arrangements of old favorites ("Black," "Better Man").
Headliners Buffalo Springfield, who haven't played publicly in over 40 years, of course were the centerpiece of both evenings. Original members Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay proved their unique, sweet harmonies were still intact with a little help from Joe Vitale and Rick Rosas sitting in for the late Dewey Martin and Bruce Palmer. The group's hit "For What It's Worth" had multiple generations singing along, but the crowd was keyed in to every tune from "Rock And Roll Woman" to "Do I Have To Come Right Out And Say It."
Sunday's line-up added T Bone Burnett's breath-taking ensemble, the Speaking Clock Revue, into the mix and there wasn't a rock fan in the house that couldn't find something to love whether it was Costello's tunes, Neko Case's beautiful voice, 83-year-old roots legend Ralph Stanley singing "Man of Constant Sorrow" after explaining how he wrote it, or a capable mini-set from Jeff "The Dude" Bridges. But no one in attendance could sit still for Elton john and Leon Russell's double-piano onslaught.
Fittingly, it was Neil Young's "Rockin' In The Free World" that brought both nights to a close with all of each evening's performers crowding onto the stage to jam and Young and Pearl Jam's Vedder volleying vocals while everyone else strummed guitars, hollered into mics, or just danced around gleefully as the crowd packed down into the seated area to get one last closer look at the amazing assembly.