26th Annual Bridge School Benefit Concert – Neil Young, Foster The People, The Flaming Lips, Jack White, Guns N Roses, Eddie Vedder

Neil Young and Crazy Horse during the finale of the Bridge School Benefit Concert. Photo by John Green

It’s a bit tricky, at first thought, to criticize a benefit concert for kids. But, actually, there are two completely parts of such an event. For any benefit concert, there is the most important aspect – raising as much money and awareness as possible for a great cause – in this case, that helps children in need. That is always a good thing.

On the other hand, with a benefit concert, there is the music side of it as well. And in this case, that’s where the resounding criticism has been making the rounds in the past few days.

Saturday’s 26th annual Bridge School Benefit Concert in Mt. View, California at the Shoreline Amphitheatre was sort of like the president’s performance in the first debate – the overwhelming consensus, even among fans of the artists in the line-up and passionate, long-time supporters of the Bridge School, was that the concert itself was disappointing, disorganized and failed to live up to the high standards set by past years’ Bridge School concerts. Music icon and activist, Neil Young, along with his wife, Pegi, started the benefit concert back in 1986 to raise money for the Bridge School, a Hillsborough, California school for children with special needs.

In addition to many concert goers, the media and blogs also considered the concert an overall disappointment. The San Francisco Chronicle called it “a year to forget” referring to the popular annual event; The Oakland Tribune dubbed it “short on thrills” while The San Jose Mercury News started their review with “Neil Young tried…it’s just that most of his wilder selections – including Guns N’ Roses, Jack White and the Flaming Lips – didn’t go over so well…[and] came bunched towards the end of the show, which made for a very long night for fans.” Yes, it did.

In past years, Bridge School had a reputation for bringing world-renowned, heavy weights of the music world, like Paul McCartney, The Who, Radiohead and Green Day. But this year failed to feature even one huge act.

A significant portion of this year’s Bridge School line-up conjured up images of a reunion show of artists who peaked in the 1990’s, a fact many of them later reinforced by disappointing and unimpressive performances. The Flaming Lips, Lucinda Williams, Guns N’ Roses, and to a lesser extent, Jack White, missed their mark. In fact, it was a surprise VIP guest not on the schedule that drew the most applause of the night. More on that further down. The show’s overall production was disorganized, sloppily executed, wrought with delays and truncated performances, and noticeable sound issues.

The event started off fairly well, with an aging Young performing some of his acoustic classics, “Sugar Mountain,” and with his wife joining him on stage, a wonderful rendition of “Comes A Time.” Young has been the opening, and closing, artist at Bridge School for many years, however, it would be great if he played a couple of songs in the middle of the line-up too, for people who missed the opening or can’t stay up until after midnight to see him close.

“Sugar Mountain” Neil Young

Next up, singer/songwriter Guy Clark Jr. sounded great, but his set was cut short to only three songs due to scheduling issues. This was the first sign of things to come, even despite a solid performance by k.d. lang following Clark.

After k.d. lang’s solid set, comedian, musician and actor Steve Martin‘s bluegrass hootenanny romp, together with is band, Steep Canyon Rangers, got a good part of the 18,000 concert goers fired up. For those of us who are not exactly bluegrass and banjo-loving music fans, the best part of Martin’s first few minutes was the vibe that it generated throughout the crowd. (Judging from the enthusiastic reaction of the crowd, together with the popular, three-day annual bluegrass-oriented music festival in San Francisco – the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival – that took place two weeks earlier, it’s evident to anyone who has lived in the Bay Area for more than a couple of years that bluegrass is extremely popular in a region that gave birth to, and became the epicenter for, the 1960’s psychedelic rock explosion.)

Following Steve Martin’s county fair bonanza was nothing short of a dismal set from singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams. Her set was completely forgettable, other than it sounded horrible. People were not paying attention, and many teens and young adults in the crowd were clearly waiting for Williams to finish so they could see one of the most talked about ‘indie’ bands of the past year to 18 months – Foster The People.

In fact, it was these relative newbies to the music scene that sounded the freshest and most engaging by that point in the concert. FTP played magnificently and got not only the kids and the younger folks pumped up, but many older adults as well. And yet against all logic (since they were the first rock act that really got the Shoreline energized), the band’s set was cut short, denying FTP the chance to play their best known song, “Pumped Up Kicks.” Whoever was making these on-the-fly changes to the schedule in real time during the show obviously did not know what they were doing, which was evident throughout the nearly nine hour concert.

“Pumped Up Kicks” – Foster the People

Instead, and most likely at the expense of thousands of young people – which probably included some Bridge School students – singer/songwriter Ray LaMontagne was clearly given some of FTP’s time so he could play a longer set. LaMontagne’s performance was acceptable on his part, but for some reason, for much of his set, the loudspeakers’ sound was ear-piercingly overloaded with treble and volume and emitted an echoing sound throughout the venue.

As long time Flaming Lips fans, we can only say that the Lips’ performance was lackluster (other reviewers were more harsh). First off, the opening three songs, “Fight Test,” “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” and “It’s Summertime” were decent, but overall, they’re just not songs that translate well into an acoustic set, despite comedian and human beat box Reggie Watts‘ attempts to recreate various bass and sci-fi like sound effects of the original recordings. But the whole thing just didn’t come together well – these popular Lips’ songs are anthemic, epic, flashy and dependent on electronics.

“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”Flaming Lips

But the set really unraveled when Wayne Coyne began hogging the limited set time to talk about his bugle – seriously, his bugle. Much of the audience was talking or looked bored, even frustrated, while Coyne babbled on incoherently, something he tends to do during shows. Plus, people were cold and needed to be warmed up, not cooled down even more. And then we heard the words “military funeral” which understandably stood out from Coyne’s drivel. At that point, in what he must have thought was a masterful idea, and a sure-fire way to get the audience ramped up, he actually starting playing “Taps.” Yup, the death song, and in between pauses in the notes, crickets from the crowd, as if there was a collective bewilderment that enveloped that surrounded it, he decided it would really peep up the crowd, and kids from the Bridge School seated in the rafters, to play “Taps” on his bugle. Come on man, seriously? Thereafter, perhaps realizing (or being told) he lost the audience, Coyne actually pleaded with them to make some noise.

The fumble continued when the band broke into a cover version of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” with Coyne not even able to carry the tune. Plus, his special guest, Reggie Watts, was literally reading the lyrics of the song from his smartphone. Seriously? The last couple of times we’ve seen The Lips, they were not really up to par with expectations, but this appearance was dismal. Perhaps without Coynes’ big plastic ball, ownership of the stage, confetti bombs, video montages, colorful lights and all of the other eye-candy, Coyne and the band seem to not be so great when stripped down to the bare essentials.

Then it was time for Jack White. There were probably thousands of White fans who attended Bridge School for the first time and did not know that it’s an all-acoustic concert. So any thoughts of White belting out the edgy, frantic and blazing guitar rock he’s famous for were quickly dispelled. Rather, White was joined by a five-member all female back-up band, performing a predominantly country and blues set, with a touch of bluegrass influences. And while he managed to get a response from the sluggish crowd that Wayne Coyne practically begged for, it still was not the kind of rousing roar of approval, applause and enthusiasm we’ve heard for headliners at past Bridge School concerts at the Shoreline Ampitheatre, which is adjacent to the sprawling headquarters of Google.

With a couple of brief exceptions, White did not dip into his huge reserve of songs from The White Stripes, The Raconteurs nor Dead Weather, instead opting for songs from his recent debut solo album, which we’ll hazard a guess the majority of people in attendance have not heard. Still, White managed to eek out an acceptable set. But in a night of short-comings and disappointments, line-up and scheduling blunders, long delays and sound issues, it wasn’t enough to mitigate hours of mediocrity.

Another common complaint of the night was that the venue was far too crowded – appearing as if the organizers over-sold the Shoreline’s capacity. Whenever a venue crowds in too many people, it tends to lessen the experience for everyone. There have been rumors for years that the Shoreline doesn’t sell-out, but over sells. For folks who have been going to the Shoreline for years, yours truly among them, it did appear that Saturday night had a couple thousand more people than the venue was built to handle, making it more difficult to find a spot on the lawn, to use the rest rooms and to get food or drink.

Then, with Guns N’ Roses taking too long to get on stage, the organizers turned to a very special guest who was not part of the original line-up to give the crowd something to feel good about. That guest was the legendary Eddie Vedder, who came out on stage with an acoustic guitar to deliver two songs – “Last Kiss” and “Eldery Woman” – a performance that finally got thousands of people up on their feet and arms in the air, followed up by the biggest applause of the night. Vedder joked to the crowd: “This is the last place I thought I’d be when I woke up today . . . opening for Guns N’ Roses.”

By this time it was approaching 9 pm and a pick up in the wind made it feel much colder than it actually was. Right before he left the stage, we swear we heard Vedder say “I think we got it,” which to us indicated that he was sent out there unscheduled with a mission to get the crowd energized. After Vedder left the stage, the chatter among many people in the crowd was that Vedder saved the night from being mediocre.

However, we keep coming back to the point – it’s a benefit concert for kids, and that’s the main point above all else. Yet at the same time it’s long been regarded as a premiere annual Bay Area music event. While the Flaming Lips and White failed to rev up the crowd, and Vedder only played two quick songs and was off, perhaps the most anticipated act of the night for many concert goers – and easily the most talked about in the weeks leading up to this past weekend – would bring it – the 90’s rock sensation, Guns N Roses.

Just the very fact that Axl Rose, although late, showed up at all was supposedly a win for Guns N Roses fans. But Rose, who looked old and frumpy, was hunched over the mic, lethargic, and most noticeably to fans who couldn’t quite see the stage from the lawn area, his voice was haggard and strained, which lead to wild rumors that it wasn’t Rose at all, but a stand-in singer. What also fueled the rumors was the fact that Rose forgot the lyrics to the band’s biggest hit, “Welcome to the Jungle.” It also didn’t seem to help their cause that the the band decided to unplug and play acoustic versions of their hallmark songs. Even on “Sweet Child of Mine,” Rose’s vocals were way off key. The disappointment was obvious as thousands of concert goers, tired, cold and disillusioned by the entire night, began a steady stream to the exits.

Aidin Vaziri wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle of the Guns N’ Roses set: “An unkempt Rose arrived onstage late, hunched over a microphone stand and huffed his way through tunes that sounded vaguely familiar with a cast of misfits that looked vaguely like a band” delivering a performance that Vaziri added “most likely had all the dogs within an earshot of the concert howling in pain.”

Another issue that many talked about was the long delays between sets – at one point up to 25 minutes. At least during the break down of one band’s gear on the stage and the set-up of another’s the organizers could have had some stellar videos running or at the least have Neil Young  come out with an acoustic guitar and perform a song or two. In fact, we were baffled by the fact that Young didn’t come out on stage at the half way point, or some interval, to play a song or two as we recall him doing at past Bridge School concerts. Instead, concert goers would have to wait until after 11 pm to finally hear Young and his long-time band, Crazy Horse, perform.

Finally, it came time for the Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But it was past 11 p.m. and cold. Concert goers, the majority of whom had been there for at least six hours, were noticeably tired and weary. Still, many had stayed to hear their local hero and master of ceremonies, Young, and his long-time band, perform.

One of the other major issues of the night was the sound system – at times it was too loud and there was an echo for long stretches. Not sure who the sound engineers were for this year’s Bridge School, but they pretty much failed to deliver a great sound for the night. This was a common complaint among concert goers. Hopefully, next year’s Bridge School will be much, much better than this years. But, in the final analysis, it’s all good because it raised buckets of money for kids with special needs.

Note: This does not represent the Sunday concert


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