Over here, we like it when things are thrown together and stirred around for a new outcome. And nothing says “mix and match” like the annual Bridge School Benefit held every year at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View. Started by Neil Young as a fundraiser for the Bridge School, a school focusing on the education of children with very specific needs, the benefit is always one of the highlights of the concert season. Because of several of the basic principles of the Bridge School and the benefit, the event always turns into a sharing and communal concert celebrating life, happiness and the pursuit of education.
As for the mixing and matching…take multiple well-known and wealthy musical artists. Sprinkle in some lesser known artists that deserve some spotlight. The resulting line-up always covers an incredible spectrum of genres, and as a result, brings in one of the most diverse and eclectic concert going crowds you might ever see. Then, you make all of the artists, even those known for rocking hard, switch to acoustic for the event. Finally, you have all of these musicians and music fans coming together to support and donate to children that, for the most part, they could never imagine being in the shoes of.
So just how diverse are the musicians? This year’s show featured Regina Spektor, Tegan and Sara, My Morning Jacket, John Mayer, Tom Waits with the Kronos Quartet, Neil Young, Jerry Lee Lewis and Metallica. Yes, Metallica, at an acoustic show.
I missed Regina Spektor’s set.
But we’re there in time for Tegan and Sara, which was one of the groups I was interested in seeing. Virtual nobodies before and now starting to bud on the national music scene, Tegan and Sara is one of those groups that got sprinkled into the Bridge School Benefit of 2000, which is where I first heard of them. Scared little children on a stage, they still put on a duo acoustic set that prompted me to download their music and get into them. Now, 7 years later, here we both were at completely different parts in our lives. I’m in the middle of telling some people, “I saw them for the first time when they played Bridge School,” when they tell the crowd, “the first time we came here, it was for Bridge School and we were 19.” It was nice to see them make their Bridge School return, now quite a bit more mature, with a band backing them, and a second cd to draw music from. They bicker on stage a bit, but I believe they do this to entertain the audience, although, sometimes it’s a bit embarrassing as you end up feeling that you’ve walked into a private family meeting. The highlights of their set are “I was 19,” “Like O, Like H,” and “Back In Your Head.”
Eddie Vedder and Flea were supposed to play after Tegan and Sara, but due to personal problems of Vedder’s, they had to cancel and were replaced by My Morning Jacket. I have never heard of this group before, and if the set they put together yesterday was any indication, I never want to again.
John Mayer, at least in my personal opinion, falls into that annoying category of singer/songwriters that succeed due to mass marketing, cheesy songs, romantic expectations and a sound simple enough that the general public goes, “oooh, this is really good!” Someone tried to compare Mayer with Dave Matthews at one point, and I almost threw that someone off a balcony. The lyrical depth isn’t even close. The guy that sings the “Had a Bad Day” song, John Mayer and Jack Johnson should get together to form a pop sensation super band in which all 102 songs of their catalogue sound vaguely similar and they go quadruple platinum because of how easily digestible their music is to the public. But hey…that’s just my opinion, right?
For the set, it’s Mayer and two other guitarists. Mayer comes out trying to act very relaxed and nonchalant, sits down on a stool, gives a raspy “How you doing out there?” to his female admirers, and proceeds with a set that sounds like a frat boy playing guitar in the middle of campus hoping to get noticed, if not laid. He pulls out the same raspy voice on the majority of his vocals, I can’t tell the difference between the songs other than slight tempo changes, and while they try to disguise it with tricky camera work, every guitar solo of even remote musical complexity is done not by Mayer, but by one of the other two guys on the stage with him. I’m about to give up the set as a complete washout when he closes it by covering “Free Fallin.” It’s a nice touch, but he comes dangerously close to screwing this hallowed classic up by failing to sing the chorus with anything remotely resembling Petty’s range and energy. If you ever want to listen to John Mayer, I suggest going down to your local campus and looking for a guy playing guitar…he may not be as well known, but hey, he could be the next John Mayer, and if not, he’s certainly more affordable to see in concert.
Following Mayer we have Neil Young. First off, you can’t say anything negative about his set because he puts on the event, his songs are as old as the Amphitheater itself, and he’s always Neil. You can’t say much positive though because bands have a tendency to lose their effect after multiple shows. Neil plays at every Bridge School, so I think I’ve probably seen him 8 or 9 times now. He’s solid, and you have to give him one thing…he’s extremely consistent. The only thing he didn’t break out last night was the big stand-up organ I’ve seen him use from time to time, but this is probably due to the fact that he usually closes the show and this time went in the middle of the sets. I don’t recognize any of the songs, but at the end he tells the crowd that it’s mostly new material and he doesn’t expect anyone to have recognized any of it.
Next up is one of the primary reasons I bought tickets for this Bridge School, and the performance of Tom Waits and the Kronos Quartet delivers. For those of you who don’t know the Kronos Quartet, they’re the group that performed Clint Mansell’s arrangements for Darren Arronofsky’s movie Requiem for a Dream based on Hubert Selby’s book. But when you mix a legendary, eccentric and out there rocker like Tom Waits with an incredibly proficient and polished string quartet like Kronos, the outcome is something spectacular. I’d almost want to dub this Chamber Rock. They come out and open with the theme song from HBO’s The Wire, which is stellar. He also plays some old time blues songs with the Quartet behind him straying into some dark and menacing arrangements. He plays a variety of songs with completely different sounds. One sounds like a Gotan tango song laced with arsenic, and one takes on the style of a macabre show tune. There aren’t a whole lot of succinct words to describe this performance, but it was one of the more interesting musical collaborations I’ve seen and ranked right up there with last year’s Trent Reznor/string quartet performance (although Trent didn’t use Kronos, so he loses some points there). After Waits leaves, I feel like the energy in the place is knocked up a few notches, and I’m wondering if they can bring him out for another set.
Jerry Lee Lewis is one of the other main reasons I bought tickets for this show. He’s one of the few truly incredible icons and musical prodigies that I had yet to see in concert. He comes out with a slower walk, a pair of glasses, long hair slicked back off his forehead and sits down at the piano. Now, he’s older, so you can tell his fingers can’t take the speed and ferocity he used to be known for, but he’s still a master musician. He comes out playing old hits and most everyone in the audience is moving with him. He at points lapses into a deep Southern twang, and almost consistently refers to himself in songs as “Jerry Lee.” He can’t dance at the piano like he used to, but the voice in his songs and the way he attacks the piano give you a clear idea of who he used to be as a performer, and just how much, even this late in life, is still there for him. His set is remarkable, and in conjunction with Tom Waits and the Kronos Quartet, the price of the ticket is well justified. The highlights of his set include “Roll Over Beethoven,” “You Win Again” (Hank Williams cover), “Your Cheating Heart,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.”
After Lewis finishes up, Metallica comes out to close the show. They, like Tegan and Sara, have made two Bridge School appearances, and I’ve been lucky enough to be at both. They came out and played 5 covers and 3 originals. Thanks to KFer (not KFed!) for the info…They started with “I Just Want to Celebrate” (ironically used in the final episode of 6 Feet Under, making this an evening where two tracks from HBO series were played) then played Nazareth’s “Please Don’t Judas Me.” Personally, I found it excellent and amazing when they covered Garbage’s “I’m Only Happy When It Rains,” right before Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms.” Following this, they went into “Disposable Heroes,” “All Within My Hands,” and Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” before closing their set and the show with “Nothing Else Matters.”
All in all, it wasn’t the most impressive Bridge line-up I’ve ever seen…My Morning Jacket and John Mayer could have definitely been left off the guest list. But seeing Metallica acoustically, Jerry Lee Lewis for the first time and the unreal performance of Tom Waits and the Kronos Quartet made this a very successful, diverse and memorable Bridge School Benefit. See y’all next year.