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Take It to the Bridge

Just like a temperamental teenager, the Bridge School Benefit Concert enters its 16th year--older, wiser, a little rebellious and always with a few tricks up its sleeve

By Jim Harrington, Photographs By Steve Jennings

Marilyn Manson in a cowboy hat. CSN&Y on a stage together. Metallica goes acoustic. Phish does a barbershop quartet version of "Freebird." Red Hot Chili Peppers cover Cat Stevens. Ben Harper brings his mom on stage and croons "Tomorrow Is a Long Time." Eddie Vedder tells the crowd he was supposedly conceived while his parents listened to Neil Young.

For the lucky people who witness the Bridge School Benefit Concerts, these moments are scorched into memory. Since 1986, the Bridge School shows have been the most celebrated musical event in Northern California. Organizer Neil Young--through his own connections and the good karma of a worthwhile cause--has set the stage for some of the Bay Area's most elaborate and magical rock performances. The show was named and created to benefit the Hillsborough-based Bridge School for children with speech and physical impairments. Young's son was a student there and Young's wife, Pegi, is one of the school's founders.

From its humble beginnings in 1986, with a fairly predictable roundup of FM radio types, one could argue that the Bridge has evolved into one of the most important annual music events held on the West Coast. The Bridge has hosted a regular who's who in rock history at its Shoreline Amphitheatre home. Think Elton John, the Who, David Bowie, Phish, Pearl Jam, Shawn Colvin, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Green Day, Sheryl Crow and John Lee Hooker, all guests, who sometimes performed in the same show. But the true stars, treated like royalty throughout the night and given the nod by stars, are the developmentally disabled kids of the school who sit onstage behind the performers, cloaked in blankets to ward off the fall chill, applauding enthusiastically.

Though it relies on big names, the Bridge maintains an intimate feel. Many of the artists stay at Neil's personal spread in Portola Valley and make mention of the hospitable digs while onstage. Others rework songs, play covers especially chosen for the event and freely collaborate with each other. Sometimes it can flop (Eddie Van Halen with Simon and Garfunkel?) but when it works, it's like witnessing a Game Seven home run.

One of the toughest tickets of the year to come by, as shows frequently sell out within the first 24 hours, the show traditionally closes out the summer concert season. This year the 2002 Bridge features Neil Young, James Taylor, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Jack Johnson, LeAnn Rimes, Vanessa Carlton, Tenacious D, Ryan Adams and others on Oct. 26 and 27. In celebration of the event's 16th anniversary, we look back at what made the previous 15 years memorable.

Bridge School No. 1
Date: Oct. 13, 1986
Who played: CSN&Y, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Nils Lofgren, Don Henley, Tom Petty and Robin Williams
Big Moment: This inaugural benefit happened at a time when an acoustic show was still a novelty, and everyone did their part. Young didn't wait long to start the tradition of big guest appearances. In his opening set, he brought out Springsteen on "Helpless." A few moments later, he called upon some old friends to sing with him: Crosby, Stills and Nash. The crowd went wild.
Small Moment: Tom Petty showed why he needs the Heartbreakers or, at the very least, why he needs guitar great Mike Campbell. He struggled to translate his songs to the acoustic setting. Petty would, however, make up for this uneven set in future Bridge outings.
Summary: Although the whole thing was Neil Young's idea, this show did not turn out to belong to the man born in Toronto, Canada. It belonged to the man "Born in the U.S.A." Bruce Springsteen was the biggest artist in the world at that time thanks to his multifaceted songs about America and patriotism--pretty much the same ones he's still doing. Despite a well-received set by Henley, the CSN&Y reunion and Williams's stream of consciousness jokes, it was Springsteen's set that defined this inaugural show.

Billy Idol
Billy, Be a Hero: Billy Idol lets out a rebel yell as Neil Young sets his guitar to stun.

Bridge School No. 2
Date: Dec. 4, 1988
Who played: Neil Young, Bob Dylan and G.E. Smith, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Nils Lofgren, Billy Idol, Tracy Chapman and CSN&Y
Big Moment: Garcia and Weir traded acoustic licks on "Ripple" and "Throwing Stones" like regular friends playing at a coffeehouse, without all the tie-dyed circus that surrounded the Dead shows.
Small Moment: Billy Idol acted like a childish moron and the crowd hated him. This is not to be confused with Bridge School No. 15, where he acted like a childish moron and the crowd loved him. In 1988, Idol appeared to be enjoying his rebellious persona--jumping onstage at inappropriate times, curling his lip and throwing his fist way more than the classic rock crowd did.
Summary: After skipping a year, the Bridge was back to try and top the inaugural offering. This show at the Oakland Coliseum--the only Bridge that did not take place at Shoreline--featured some outstanding moments. Petty redeemed himself by bringing his Heartbreakers along for the ride. Dylan mumbled convincingly through solid versions of "San Francisco Bay Blues" and "Forever Young." Chapman's "Fast Car" had yet to run out of gas. CSN&Y took us to the "Southern Cross."

Bridge School No. 3
Date: Oct. 28, 1989
Who played: Neil Young, Sammy Hagar, Tom Petty, Tracy Chapman, CSN and CSNandY
Big Moment: Crosby, Stills and Nash--and later with Young--made everyone else on the bill seem like opening acts. The trio--and, later, the quartet--delivered a night of big songs. The crowd ate up classics like "Ohio" and "Teach Your Children."
Small Moment: Not enough guest appearances or comingling to make things interesting. Where was the Chapman-Hagar duet on "I Can't Drive (My Fast Car) 55"?
Summary: Look at the lineup. Seem familiar? With the exception of Sammy Hagar, every act on the bill was also on the previous year's lineup. And the majority of the acts were on the bill in 1986 as well. Three years old and the event was already in danger of becoming old news. That's not to say that there weren't some nice moments--including fine sets by both CS&N and CSN&Y. It's just that there weren't many fresh ones. But that would change ...

Bridge School No. 4
Date: Oct. 26, 1990
Who played: Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Cheech Marin, Larry Keegan, Jackson Browne, Edie Brickell and a Few Bohemians, Elvis Costello and Steve Miller
Big Moment: The all-star cast gathered on the stage for the big finale of "Rockin' in the Free World," a dramatic change of pace from the usual "Teach Your Children" closer.
Small Moment: Stripped of his pothead/cholo humor, Cheech Marin proved that he's no Robin Williams and, probably, not the best host for this show. Edie Brickell proved to be the one-hit wonder that everyone, except maybe Paul Simon, already suspected she was.
Summary: Young invited some new friends to the show. Crazy Horse injected new energy, backing Neil on such tracks as "Love and Only Love," "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" and "Mansion on the Hill." Steve Miller delivered--to borrow the title from a Jimmy Buffett compilation--"Songs You Know By Heart." His hit-heavy set included big ones like "The Joker" and "Take the Money and Run."

Bridge School No. 5
Date: Nov. 2, 1991
Who played: Neil Young, Larry Keegan, John Lee Hooker, Don Henley, Nils Lofgren, Tracy Chapman, Sonic Youth and Willie Nelson
Big Moment: Neil Young and guests bade farewell to legendary promoter and friend Bill Graham, who had died a few days earlier on Oct. 25. As Fillmore regulars know, Graham traditionally ended his shows by playing "Greensleeves" over the PA as people left the venue. Young kept the tradition alive by playing an instrumental version of "Greensleeves" to end this Bridge. Nice touch.
Small Moment: Sonic Youth and John Lee Hooker. Sonic Youth's blurry, feedback-drenched sound failed to translate in the acoustic setting. Duh! Although Hooker was allowed an electric guitar, due to his legendary status, he didn't do much with it, or with his voice for that matter.
Summary: It was great to see more musically eclectic acts. A bill with Willie Nelson, John Lee Hooker, Sonic Youth and Don Henley is not one that happens often in nature. But eclectic does not always translate to electric. And this is not Lollapalooza. The Bridge fans aren't known for applauding much diversity. They like CSN&Y followed by Neil Young and Crazy Horse followed by CS&N followed by Young solo. However, those familiar with the acoustic instruments did much better than those faking it. While Sonic Youth's set was met with jeers from the crowd, Chapman and Nelson managed to connect with their folksy tunes.

Bridge School No. 6
Date: Nov. 1, 1992
WHO PLAYED: Neil Young, Shawn Colvin, Sammy Hagar, Elton John, Pearl Jam and James Taylor
BIG MOMENT: Pearl Jam made the first of roughly 486 appearances at the Bridge School. This first one, however, was a big deal. Eddie Vedder's support of the event managed to sell the Bridge to the younger generation. Young guested on Elton John's "Love Song." And, yes, it was everything one would expect.
Small Moment: Neil "The Godfather of Grunge" Young does not sing with Eddie "The Crown Prince of Grunge" Vedder.
Summary: Call it the start of the Pearl Jam era. This show marks the beginning of a new time for the Bridge, where Young does not feel it is necessary for him--or CSN&Y or Crazy Horse--to carry the show every year. Despite heavy competition from big leaguers like Elton and Taylor, as well as the grunge poster-boys Pearl Jam, the night's best set may have come from opener Shawn Colvin. The folksinger, with a personality as big as her beautiful voice, won over 22,000 people with her simple, dramatic storytelling and poignant songs.

Dave Matthews and Neil Young
Combo Plate Collaborations are a big reason why Bridge School rules. Dave Matthews and Neil Young show why.

Bridge School No. 7
Date: Nov. 6, 1993
Who played: Neil Young, Melissa Etheridge, Warren Zevon, Anne and Nancy Wilson, Sammy Hagar and Eddie Van Halen, Bonnie Raitt and Simon and Garfunkel
Big Moments: Melissa Etheridge sang a scorching version of "Piece of My Heart" that is still reverberating in the chests of those who were there that night. At that time, Etheridge was not a really big name, but after she left the stage, it was clear that she would become one.
Small Moment: Eddie Van Halen provided a guest guitar solo during Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence." Enough said.
Summary: Pretty phenomenal show from top to bottom. Bonnie Raitt had people weeping with her version of John Prine's immortal "Angel From Montgomery." Anne and Nancy Wilson showed they still had heart--playing Led Zep's "The Battle of Evermore" as well as their hits. Sammy and Eddie showed that they don't need the other guys in Van Halen. And Simon and Garfunkel delivered warm favorites like "Feelin' Groovy" and "Homeward Bound." Also of note: Neil and Eddie dueled on guitars a bit for the finale of "Rockin' in the Free World."

Bridge School No. 8
Date: Oct. 1-2, 1994
Who played: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Pearl Jam, Pete Droge, Mazzy Star, Ministry, Indigo Girls
Big Moment: The finale brought together Young and Crazy Horse with members of the Heartbreakers and Pearl Jam. However, the selection of "Piece of Crap" for a closer was a bit odd given the cause.
Small Moment: Ozzy Osbourne canceled his scheduled appearance. This may have been a good thing.
Summary: Almost as diverse a bill as Bridge School No. 5. Only this one held together much better. Ministry strayed from their usual heavy sounds and played a winning set of acoustic-friendly tunes by the likes of the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. Mazzy Star sounded a little less sleepy in this acoustic setting although singer Hope Sandoval was still mesmerizing. Most importantly, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, after many tries, finally seemed to have a handle on this Bridge School thing. They were confident and poised as they breezed through a lively set of new and old songs.

Bridge School No. 9
Date: Oct. 28, 1995
Who played: Neil Young, Beck, Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois, Bruce Springsteen, The Pretenders and Hootie and the Blowfish
Big Moment: A tearful rendition on Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done," dedicated to Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon, who had been on the bill but died a week earlier, performed solo by the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, who lost two original band mates to drug overdoses.
Small Moment: Hootie and the Blowfish didn't fall on their faces.
Summary: It's hard to even remember that far back now. But, trust me, Hootie was a big deal at the time. And, at the risk of never getting invited over to Gina Arnold's house, I have to say that singer Darius Rucker's big bear hug of a voice was pretty spectacular in the acoustic setting. On the other hand, Springsteen, on the heels of the dual disappointments of Lucky Town and Human Touch, was a comparatively small deal. And he played like it in this set. So there you have it: Hootie beats The Boss.

Bridge School No. 10
Date: Oct. 19-20, 1996
Who played: Neil Young, Hayden, Pete Townshend (Saturday), Billy Idol (Sunday), Cowboy Junkies, Patti Smith, Bonnie Raitt (Sunday), David Bowie and Pearl Jam
Big Moment: Pete Townshend, in the Bay Area for the weekend to perform Quadrophenia with his mates, pops over to Shoreline to play an unannounced Bridge set during Saturday's concert.
Small Moment: Townshend does not repeat the favor for fans on Sunday. Billy Idol barely covers the spread.
Summary: A strong lineup--especially if you happened to attend Saturday's show and witnessed Townshend's surprise set. Patti Smith was pure poetry on the stage, delivering more power with each word than most artists put into entire albums. Despite David Bowie's massive star power, he made Shoreline seem more intimate, connecting to the back rows with a wink and a sly grin. Pearl Jam hadn't gotten old yet. Notably, the Cowboy Junkies managed to make their mark amid all of the über-celebrities. Lead singer Margo Timmins could melt listeners simply by reading the phonebook.

Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam
My Generation Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam helped the Bridge School appeal to a younger audience.

Bridge School No. 11
Date: Oct. 18-19, 1997
Who played: Neil Young, Metallica, Lou Reed, Smashing Pumpkins, Alanis Morrisette, Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler and Kacey Crowley
Big Moment: Metallica goes acoustic.
Small Moment: First daughter Chelsea Clinton and her classmates wangle front section tickets and flit about backstage.
Summary: When the lineup for these Bridge shows was first announced it read like a misprint. How could all of these big names be on just one bill? Years later, it didn't look quite as impressive, as the stars of Blues Traveler, the Pumpkins, Manson and others had faded. Still, the chance to see local boys Metallica go acoustic was worth the price of admission. Plus, you got to hear Lou Reed strum out "Sweet Jane." And how can you go wrong with Alanis Morrisette covering "Norwegian Wood?" Wait, don't answer that.

Bridge School No. 12
Date: Oct. 17-18, 1998
Who played: Neil Young, R.E.M., Phish, Wallflowers, Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies, Jonathan Richman, The Eels, Pete Droge and Mike McCready (Sunday)
Big Moment: Loads. Jonathan Richman won over a clearly perplexed crowd of 22,000. R.E.M. and Young combined on "Country Feedback"--a song that Young was just meant to play guitar on. Phish did an a cappella version of "Freebird." Wow.
Small Moment: The Barenaked Ladies are Canadian, eh? Sorry, but I just love South Park.
Summary: Perhaps the best lineup in Bridge history. Not the biggest, mind you. But this quirky mix just seemed to work so well together. The sets fit like pieces of a puzzle. By the end of the day, you really felt like you had been part of an "experience."

Bridge School No. 13
Date: Oct. 30-31, 1999
Who played: Neil Young, The Who, Pearl Jam, Sheryl Crow, Green Day, Billy Corgan and James Iha, Tom Waits (Sat. only), Emmylou Harris (Sun. only) and Lucinda Williams and Brian Wilson.
Big Moment: The Who reunited.
Small Moment: The Who reunited.
Summary: Considered by many to offer the quintessential Bridge lineup, the 1999 Bridge shows certainly made for a Happy Halloween weekend for local music fans. The fact that it happened to be Bridge School No. 13--ooh, scary!--only made things feel more appropriate. From Williams' stark folktales to Billy Corgan's passionate alt rock, these concerts were full of goose pimple moments. Although the reunited Who got most of the ink, and then, like usual, failed to live up to the hype, it was Green Day that delivered, especially on "Good Riddance." Green Day proved that punk rock can translate to acoustic instruments--it's called rockabilly. These multiplatinum East Bay punks certainly surprised some people in the crowd with their deep musicality. Tom Waits was spooky and magical and, well, weird. Sheryl Crow was "Strong Enough." And Brian Wilson has better songs than anybody.

Bridge School No. 14
Date: Oct. 28-29, 2000
Who played: Neil Young, CSN&Y, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck, Dave Matthews Band, Foo Fighters, Tegan and Sara and Robin Williams
Big Moment: CSN&Y took the Bridge back to its roots. The quartet delivered plenty of favorites like "Our House" and "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." The finale came with "Love the One You're With," which, on Saturday, featured Matthews and surprise guest Woody Harrelson.
Small Moment: Saturday's show was a wet one. It poured during much of the first night--testing fans' fortitude as well as their love for this event.
Summary: The year prior, it was Green Day's chance to silence skeptics who believed that harder music wouldn't translate in this setting. This time, two heavier rocking acts got the chance. Both the Foo Fighters and, more impressively, the Red Hot Chili Peppers made the most of their acoustic spins. In fact, by many accounts, the Peppers were the top act of the night. Petty, Matthews, Young and Beck managed to deliver what was expected. Petty, in particular, was a big favorite with the older crowd. "I Won't Back Down," "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and a cover of "Little Red Rooster" were a welcome oasis after the Foos, Red Hot and Beck.

Bridge School No. 15
Date: Oct. 20-21, 2001
Who played: Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Dave Matthews, Ben Harper, Tracy Chapman, Billy Idol and Jill Sobule
Big Moment: In a touching Sept. 11 tribute, the performers closed the show by joining together onstage for a version of John Lennon's "Imagine." But they didn't sing it. They just held hands and let the crowd sing the song, following the words projected on a big screen. Young, wearing an NYFD hat, accompanied the crowd on acoustic guitar.
Small Moment: Pearl Jam. Great band, but probably one too many shows at the Bridge.
Summary: Pretty dramatic time for music. In the wake of the tragedies of Sept. 11, the music just seemed to sound different. R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" sounded different. Pearl Jam's "Better Man" sounded different. Young's "Long May You Run" sounded different. Some of that was in the way they performed the music. Some of that was in the way we heard it.

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From the October 24-30, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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