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Experiencing Bridge School

05:01 PM Tuesday 10/23/12 |   |

Roving Pollstar contributing photographer John Davisson describes his experiences at the 26th annual Bridge School Benefit in Mountain View, Calif., and gives you his take on acoustic performances by Guns N’ Roses, The Flaming Lips, Sarah McLachlan, Jack White, Lucinda Williams and others.

  • Neil Young

    Performing at the 26th annual Bridge School Benefit, Shoreline Amph., Mountain View, Calif.
    October 20, 2012

    (John Davisson)

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Every year, the one show I look forward to the most is Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit. Unlike other festivals, Bridge School is more like 2 multi-act concerts on a Saturday and Sunday in late October at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California. The venue is a great place to photograph because the stage is low and the audience slopes upward so it is possible to move back and get a good shot of the entire stage. I first attended in 1999 and I have gone every year since.

One of the things that makes the show so special is the cause. The Bridge School is a school for children with severe communication disorders, including Neil’s son. Most of the children are wheelchair-bound and they are on a platform on the back of the stage watching the show from the ultimate VIP section. The entertainers often turn around to sing just to them. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know some of the children just from watching the shows. All the money raised, including a raffle, t-shirt sales, poster sales etc., goes to funding the Bridge School, helping attract the best teachers and technology.

Another thing that makes the show special is the performance format. Since there is only one stage, all of the performances are acoustic, which reduces set change time. The format also means the songs are often arranged differently. This year’s Bridge School Benefit featured more performers than usual; consequently the sets were shorter, but it was definitely quality time.

  • Pegi Young

    26th annual Bridge School Benefit, Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, Calif.
    October 20, 2012

    (John Davisson)

    | 

The show began each day with the Dennis Alley Wisdom Dancers and a speech by Pegi Young to introduce the cause and children. Then it was a short set By Neil Young with Pegi Young and the Wisdom Dancers to start the festivities, He played different sets each day with some of my favorite Neil songs – “Sugar Mountain” and “Comes a Time” – on Saturday. “Heart of Gold,” “Long May You Run,” and “Comes A Time” were played on Sunday.

Then Gary Clark Jr. came out to inject some acoustic blues into the stew. Although he usually plays electric, he had a nice full acoustic sound that was just as good for the presentation and his set was one of the highlights of the show. “When My Train Pulls In” and “Don't Owe You a Thang” sounded fat even played acoustically, with plenty of guitar fireworks. “Please Come Home,” with Gary singing falsetto on a ballad, seemed like a perfect choice and it worked great Sunday.

  • Gary Clark Jr.

    With his band performing acoustically at the 26th annual Bridge School Benefit, Mountain View., Calif.
    October 20, 2012

    (John Davisson)

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  • k.d. lange

    With siss boom bang at the Bridge School Benefit at the Shoreline Amph. in Mountain View, Calif.
    October 20, 2012

    (John Davisson)

    | 

k.d. lang and siss boom bang played next with the same set both days: “I Confess,” “Sing it Loud,” “Constant Craving,” and “Hallelujah.” She also had a nice full sound with her band and her powerful voice. When she carried a note, it was pretty intense. Both days, she had microphone problems at the start of her set, which was bizarre. Once would have been normal, but both days?

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers were next and their sets, which differed each day, were great for the mix of comedy and bluegrass in true Steve Martin style. I won’t tell you the jokes, in case he uses them on tour (wouldn’t want to spoil it), but he had everybody in stitches between songs. They also had a song about atheists that was hilarious. They played some great bluegrass too, and would have been impressive without the comedy side, but the funny business was the spice that made the stew. Although they only played four songs each day, they made me want to see the full show the next time they perform near me.

  • Steve Martin

    with the Steep Canyon Rangers mix music and laughs at Bridge School, Shoreline Amph., Mountain View, Calif.
    October 20, 2012

    (John Davisson)

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  • Lucinda Williams

    Bridge School Benefit, Shoreline Amph., Mountain View, Calif.
    October 20, 2012

    (John Davisson)

    | 

Lucinda Williams played next, with a different set each day, which included some Jimi Hendrix. Saturday, she was solo and Sunday she had a band. Ray Lamontagne played later in the day on both days, but on Sunday, he also came out to guest with Lucinda as did Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.

The next set was one of the best surprises of the day (both days). Foster the People is an electronic band, but they brought some unique instrumentation to the set to flesh out the songs acoustically and they got a really nice sound going. Although they did not play “Pumped Up Kicks” on Saturday, they did add it for Sunday’s set; perhaps one of the Bridge School children requested it. “Don’t Stop (Color the Walls)” and “Miss You” sounded particularly good acoustically. Mark Foster even played bouzouki on one song and said he wore jeans the second day (instead of a suit) to keep the instrument from sliding down his lap. Some electronic music does not translate well to acoustic formats, but Foster the People made it seem natural because the songs are the main draw, not the instruments used. Well done!

  • Foster The People

    Suited up for Bridge School at the Shoreline Amph. in Mountain View, Calif.
    October 20, 2012

    (John Davisson)

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Sarah McLachlan also performed a good solo acoustic set, playing guitar on “Building a Mystery” and piano for the rest of her set. She mentioned that it takes her a long time to get her songs right, but on Sunday she played a new song about her daughter, possibly called “Beautiful Girl” (she did not tell us the name of the song, but that fits). Ray Lamontagne also played a good acoustic set with minimal backing.

  • Sarah McLachlan

    At the start of her Bridge School Set at the Shoreline Amph. in Mountain View, Calif.
    October 20, 2012

    (John Davisson)

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The Flaming Lips followed and the band featured an additional member for this show with the addition of Reggie Watts as human beatbox. Without the zany production, the set seemed less enthralling than usual, but interesting anyway. Wayne played bugle and took time to explain a gizmo inside the bugle; apparently the military did not have enough trained bugle players at some point when there were a lot of casualties and the gizmo inside the bugle plays “Taps.” Wayne said the Flaming Lips used to play “Taps” at the end of George W. Bush’s term as president. So, they played Taps on Saturday to celebrate the end of another presidential term. They closed their set each day with a cover of the classic Beatles tune “A Day in the Life” with Reggie sharing the vocal duties and reading the lyrics from his cell phone.

  • Flaming Lips

    Wayne Coyne and Reggie Watts perform at the Bridge School Benefit at Shoreline Amph. in Mountain View, Calif.
    October 20, 2012

    (John Davisson)

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The next set was definitely one of the highlights of the 2012 Bridge School Benefit concerts. Jack White played with his girl band on Saturday and with his boy band on Sunday. Obviously, the sets were different each day. Saturday included the Hank Williams song “You Know That I Know,” and he included a couple of White Stripes songs, “Hotel Yorba” and “We’re Going to be Friends,” to close the set. On Sunday, his former Dead Weather bandmate Alison Mosshart joined him for a couple of songs.

  • Jack White

    26th annual Bridge School Benefit, Shoreline Amph., Mountain View, Calif.
    October 20, 2012

    (John Davisson)

    | 

Many people wondered if Guns N’ Roses would play on time. Generally they did, although Eddie Vedder did play a 2-song solo set before them on Saturday, saying he didn’t expect to be playing there, opening for Guns N’ Roses when he woke up. The Guns N’ Roses anxiety was heightened. Eddie sang “Last Kiss” for Bridge School alum and friend Maricore, and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.”

Finally Guns N’ Roses played, choosing several songs (You’re Crazy, Used To Love Her, Patience) from their acoustic EP Lies. They also did “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and “Paradise City” from the first album. The entire set was acoustic, and the sound was a little thin on the harder-rocking songs, with the guitar tones not as fat as Neil’s tones. Sunday featured a truly surreal moment as Rose said “This song has always given me hope over the years, so we asked Neil if we could do it.” Neil then came out in a leather jacket and joined them for “Don’t Let it Bring You Down.” Surprises like that help make the Bridge School Benefit concerts so special.

  • Guns N’ Roses

    Perfoming acoustically at the 26th annual Bridge School Benefit @ Shoreline Amph., in Mountain View, Calif.
    October 20, 2012

    (John Davisson)

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  • Neil Young & Crazy Horse

    26th annual Bridge School Benefit, Shoreline Amph., Mountain View, Calif.
    October 20, 2012

    (John Davisson)

    | 

Neil Young and his generally electric band Crazy Horse closed the show with an acoustic set that featured plenty of fat guitar jamming and an acoustic sound that was as full as the electric sound without the distortion. They opened with the classics “Love and Only Love” and “Powderfinger,” which thrilled Neil’s fans, followed by the new song “Born in Ontario.” Neil also did a solo version of “The Needle and the Damage Done,” followed by the new song “Twisted Road” and the unreleased “Singer Without a Song.” They also played a great version of “Like a Hurricane” on Saturday.

The finale was “Rockin’ in the Free World” both nights but with different twists. Many of the day’s musicians from various bands joined in the finale, including members of Jack White’s band and the Steep Canyon Rangers. John Doe from X and Eddie Vedder were in the finale on Saturday. Willie’s son, Lukas Nelson, was there on Saturday playing air-guitar at first, until Neil handed over his guitar and started playing air-guitar while Lukas jammed. I often air-guitar to Neil, but never thought I would see Neil play air-guitar!

  • The Grand Finale

    26th annual Bridge School Benefit at the Shoreline Amph. in Mountain View, Calif.
    October 20, 2012

    (John Davisson)

    | 

On Sunday, Lukas brought his own guitar rather than borrowing from the master. Axl Rose came out for the finale on Sunday and added his trademark howl/wail/scream thing to the chorus between lines. It was one last surreal moment to close the wonderful weekend.


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