Live review

Rebels With A Cause

Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit

Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, California

SATURDAY & SUNDAY OCTOBER 26 & 27 2002

"All these great guests come down here to play for us... blows my mind, I can tell you," Neil cackles beneath the brim of his straw Stetson. "Some people say that happened a long time ago... Heheheh... Just so long as it still blows, that's OK."

For 16 years, guests have been gathering at the Bridge School benefits to blow old Neil's mind. At his behest they perform, as Foo Fighter Dave Grohl puts it, "mostly acoustical" out here at The Shoreline Amphitheatre at Mountain View, near San José, to raise money for the Hillsborough School for severely handicapped kids. Young's son, Zeke, is severely handicapped and his wife Pegi founded and helps run the school. Tradition dictates that the kids assemble on the stage and provide a heart-rending backdrop to the proceedings that Ryan Adams calls, "The coolest thing I've ever done in my entire life."

Luminaries from past years include ancient aristocracy like Neil's old posse CSN, The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Bowie, Springsteen, Dylan, R.E.M. and Petty, alongside relative whippersnappers like Neil's godchildren Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and Green Day, plus true out-there oddities like Billy Idol jamming with Crazy Horse!

This year's event continues the tradition of bringing the generations together for a mighty good cause. The customary finale of Neil's "Comes A Time" brings nigh-on seven hours of activity to a close with young himself trading verses with these unlikely stagefellows: Radiohead's Thom Yorke, mock-rock giants Tenacious D, alt. country hero Ryan Adams, avuncular hippie uncle James Taylor, new age crooner Jack Johnson and Bob Weir of The Other Ones (aka The Grateful Dead without poor, dead Jerry).

Neil kicks off proceedings with a short solo set "to break the ice for my guests". He does stirring solo versions of "The Old Laughing Lady" (for Pegi), "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" and "From Hank To Hendrix" (replaced on Sunday by "Don't Cry No Tears") before Vanessa Carlton, MTV's latest damsel in distress, wails a bit at a grand piano. Then it's Foo Fighters (Sat only), dedicating "My Hero" to Neil and highlighting a punchy set with Dave Grohl taking Hüsker Dü's mighty "Never Talking To You Again" bareback.

Tenacious D-that's Jack Black, Kyle Gass and a host of stupid props-boggle a few brains by singing a song called "Neil" that has been adapted from their great number "Dio"—an admonishment to Young to give it up and hand over his rockin' crown to them. They end with a mental take on The Beatles' Abbey Road medley and make way for Ryan Adams, whose cool set includes a stunning "Sylvia Plath" and a yodelling stomp though Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues". Jack Johnson lollops through a best-forgotten calypso take on Neil's "Harvest", new-country fluff LeAnn Rimes struggles to distract the crowd from the Giants vs Angels match on the many portable TVs being scanned throughout the crowd, and it's left to the Chaplinesque Thom Yorke to haul us back on track with an intense set of Radiohead standards performed solo on acoustic and piano—"Lucky", "Paranoid Android" and "I Might Be Wrong" included. He also tries out two new numbers—"There There" and "Sail To The Moon"—which are expected to feature on the new Head album, out next April.

Yorke's Saturday set climaxes with a shuddering assault on "After The Goldrush" which Yorke blames on borrowing Young's old piano. "The piano made me do it," he grins, awkwardly.

After Yorke's jarred the nerves, James Taylor goes down smooth like fine brandy. "Carolina In My Mind", "Country Road", "You've Got A Friend", "Fire And Rain" and "Sweet Baby James" all as fresh-sounding now as they were way back when, in the '70s, JT still had hair.

And amazingly, he is not alone in bringing the past back to life. The Other Ones, who perform on Sunday, really shouldn't work out. The Grateful Dead without Jerry-sacrilege! But Weir, Hart, Kreutzmann and Lesh, ably augmented by keyboards and guitars, cruise through a Dead set that many witnesses proclaim the band's tightest ever. Certainly the crowd is up and at 'em for the remaining living gods of Frisco's counterculture, and The Other Ones play high on the wave of emotion. "Truckin", "Uncle John's Band", "Cumberland and Blues", "Box Of Rain"... hippie heaven, man.

Neil closes the show, duetting with Taylor on a rousing "Heart Of Gold", and piercing the cool night air with chilling renditions of "Old Man", "Don't Let It Bring You Down" and "The Needle And The Damage Done". The pump organ wheezes grandly for "Mother Earth" and "Birds" makes way on the Sunday as he reclaims" ...Goldrush" for his own.

Leading the cast through the communal finale, Neil looks out through the lights and grins: "See y' all next year."


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