Each year Neil Young throws a benefit for the Bridge School at the Shoreline Amphitheatre, just outside of SF. I’ve never been one for the big rock fests, and given that the show is often filled with a lot of middle of the road acts that I have a passing interest in at best, I’ve never been willing to plonk down the big money for show tix. Not even the lure of the almighty Neil himself has tempted me. This year I decided to bite the bullet. On tap were Cat Power and Wilco, plus the bill was rounded out by Death Cab For Cutie, Norah Jones and Jack Johnson—all acts that my son has really liked at certain points in his life. I’ve taken him to rock shows before, but this was a tempting bill for his first big rock and roll shindig.
It opened with a Native American blessing and hoop dance (which if you’ve been reading the blog, you know that I was down with) and then Neil took the stage for a brief acoustic set. I Am A Child followed by Sugar Mountain. How awesome was that! It was just like being in the audience for the taping of Live Rust. Plus the hoop dancers came back and pranced about during Sugar Mountain.
Out came Cat Power. I was pretty psyched for this set. I’ve only seen Cat Power once, years ago. Horrid. We left early. Couldn’t watch the on-stage self-flagellation and torture. I’ve heard that Ms. Marshall has conquered her stage fright and knows how to perform now. Drumming was Jim White of the Dirty Three so there was an initial jolt of excitement in my jaded heart. And while she clearly has gotten over her early career stage jitters—heck she even wandered into the crowd for a set—I got to say that the overall set was a hint boring. Don’t know that I can blame her or her band. But the dark and dusty stylings of Cat Power don’t translate to 2 pm on a sunny, Sunday afternoon at an outdoor amphitheatre, playing to a half-filled house. She closed with Neil joining her on stage for Fortunate Son. A classic Cat Power cover given that I never figured out what the song was until I read about it in the paper the next day.
Up next were Wilco. Outside of Neil’s set, this was the set I was most anticipating. Saw Wilco on the last tour and was blown away. One of the best shows I’ve seen in the last couple of years. What I quickly learned about the Bridge show though, was that all bands had to play acoustic. It’s a rule. And I got to say that while that’s cool in theory, some bands were a little hog-tied by that and Wilco was one of those. You’d think Wilco, could have kicked out the awesome acoustic set, but I must say it was a bit flat. I think they’re a band that’s developed into a live dynamo due to the incredible amount of dynamic tension between all the instruments (acoustic and electric). Nels Cline is one of my fave guitar players, but he’s an electric kind of fellow and all acoustic the band didn’t have their full arsenal at the ready. All of that said, one of the day’s highlights was Neil joining them for I Shall Be Released. It’s pretty clear that live, Wilco channels The Band in a heavy, heavy fashion. And here they were playing a Band song live…with Neil Young. It made total sense and was breathtaking. And what became evident is how awesome of an acoustic guitar player Neil is. He knows how to use that instrument and have it cut through the wash of instruments on stage. Whenever he appeared on stage throughout the day, it was as if the clouds parted and a beam of light shone down on center stage.
Death Cab For Cutie were next. I was getting a little worried. Death Cab are a band I’m lukewarm on. At times I think they’re a tad boring. And if Wilco had trouble pulling off the acoustic thing, how would these mopey, emo boys manage? As it turns out, their set was one of the strongest of the day. A fantastic set. The lock-solid rhythm section playing off the crisply, plucky guitars was fantastic. It was a live set that has made me revisit the band on cd and I must admit that I’m into it. This was the set my son was looking most forward to and it was cool to see him so excited at a rock show. At the start of every song, he gleefully turned to me and said "We know this song!" Ever since the show, he’s been hanging out in his room, listening to Death Cab and reading their lyric booklets. I can start to see the teen years looming.
Smashing Pumpkins were next. Not a huge fan, but whenever my high school kids played them throughout the 90s they always sounded good. I was ready for the golden oldie hit machine. But I guess they must have a new record out cause I only recognized the last song, Disarm. And for that they had opera boy Josh Groban join them on lead vocals. I heard one grey-hair later beef, “They only played one hit. What was that about?”
Josh Groban was up next and that was our cue for a snack break. Not much of a sweet selection at the Shoreline. Settled on some hot chocolates (it was getting chilly) and my son immediately deposited half a cupful of the steamy mess on his lap. Things could have started turning for the worse here, but we rallied. Got back to our seats to see Neil join Mr. Groban for a phenomenal version of Harvest Moon.
Nora Jones up next. Very nice. Some Johnny Cash songs, some Hank Williams songs plus a cover of Jesus, Etc by Wilco. It was a great version, maybe the best Wilco song of the night. Am I wrong to think she's kind of hot?
Surfer dude Jack Johnson was next and I have to go full confessional here. I like this guy. Every bone in my body says I should hate him, but what can I say, I find him entirely enjoyable. Utterly pleasant. There I've admitted it. Sling your barbs. I don't care. Next to Death Cab it was the best set of the day. The guy knows how to craft a feel-good, acoustic set. Neil joined him for Harvest. Yet another highlight.
Then it was time for full-on Neil. Going in, I never anticipated that my son would be up for staying for the whole show. When I bought the tix, I assumed and came to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t make it to Neil. I gave my son plenty of chances to call it quits throughout the day, but he gave me incredulous stares and shot the occasional “Why would we leave?” That’s my boy. When it became evident that we would see the whole set, I was ecstatic. I love Neil more than any other. I’ve seen him live a couple of times, but only in full Crazy Horse mode. The acoustic moments throughout the show were awesome and I was giddy for the set. I was singing along, jotting down the set-list, and snapping, pointless, blurry photos like a schoolgirl. What can I say? Neil totally rules. It was awesome. Oh, Lonesome Me, Unknown Legend, the big hits from Harvest all ruled. The finale of Comes A Time with all the artists joining him on stage (including the hoop dancer) was a mindblower. If I had to choose, I’d choose Crazy Horse Neil over acoustic Neil, but I was shocked that live, Acoustic Neil was just as powerful as Crazy Horse Neil. That set was worth the price of admission alone.
We then headed out to the parking lot and in classic fashion couldn’t find our car. Honest to god I thought it was stolen. The last time this happened I was 16 and my Dad, my stepmom and I circled the Potniac Silverdome in a snowstorm, fruitlessly looking for our station wagon after a Lions/Vikings game. In a similar fashion, we managed to find our car when there were only 10 cars left in the place. At least all the traffic had dissipated.