October 23, 2006

Bridge Benefit Concert Review -- Shoreline Amphitheatre -- Saturday, October 21, 2006

{suttonhoo has asked that i write a review of this show ... if i'm going to do the work, i might as well spit it up here ... and, believe me, she's not the kind of woman you should say "no" to ... note ever ... babe, this posting is a labor of love, especially for you.

do note that normally if i wrote something like this i'd research it to get all the details right, but i'm just banging stuff out and i didn't know i was going to be writing this up when i went to the show ... if, for some ungodly reason, you find something that piques your interest, please don't take my words verbatim -- do some poking, prodding and googling for yourself.}

Fun, Fun, Fun 'til Dave Matthews Takes Your Keyboard Away

Bridge School Backgrounder

The Bridge School is located on the peninsula of the San Francisco Bay area. It provides help and support for what now are commonly called"special needs" children (what we called "speds" in my neighborhood growing up). To be clear, these are seriously messed up kids, usually in neurological fashion, and are bad enough that (I'm guessing) a kid with Down's Syndrome would probably be considered to be way underqualified to get attention from Bridge.

I've heard tell that Neil Young has at least two kids with some kind of super-rare, very debilitating, and we-insist-it-isn't-genetic, neurological disorder. My guess is there's either something about the disorder that science doesn't understand correctly yet; or Neil and his wife have a collective hippie background that has done enough chromosomal/in-utero damage to put their offspring one gene this side of being amphibians.

Neil's kids attend the school and he's a huge, and very generous, promoter of it. The Bridge shows were started 20 years ago as fund raisers, musicians donate their time and efforts. The concerts run across a weekend, with the same bands (announced several months before) playing both days. Surprise guests are always a possibility: Pete Townsend (The Who), Paul McCartney (some band that I forget), Robin Williams and Elton John (of "Elton John" fame) have all shown up unannounced in the past.

Partially because of the time it was started (think MTV Unplugged) and partially due to Mr. Young's past, all musicians are required to play the show acoustic. If you're a music-head, this is both the wonder and the terror of the Bridge shows. Some bands merely play acoustic versions of their normal instrumentation; a few completely rearrange or re-apply techniques elsewhere. The lack of electric modification of the sound puts the talent (or lack thereof) right out on the table for everyone to see.

The Bridge crowd is always extremely forgiving -- it's very much a chill-out and party-down atmosphere -- but it can be super-intimidating for bands because they're being judged against many of the better, or most successful, English-speaking acts in the world (ones that would normally be top headliners in their own right); many of the bands will be well-out of their element. The super-cool, or ultra-hip-band-of-the-moment are often the most susceptible to crash-and-burn.

The physical layout is extremely simple. A group of kids sit in the wings (this year, they were in the back of the stage, facing the audience -- this creates added agony for first-time bands to the show: Will you really sing that song about "being fucked up on heroin" in front of a kid that's so messed up she needs a handler and a drool cup?). The stage has a minimal Bridge decoration. It's that easy.

19 of the 20 years have been at Shoreline (the stray was at the Oakland Coliseum) -- because Neil lives in the Bay area, the show never happens anywhere else. As the concert grows in reputation, the overall cailbre of the bands increases.

This year's announced line-up:
Devendra Banhart
Gillian Welch
Death Cab for Cutie
Trent Reznor
Foo Fighters
Brian Wilson
Pearl Jam
Dave Matthews Band
Neil Young

The Beastie Boys and Tom Petty are both playing in the immediate area. It's possible either of them could show up, the normal unsubtantiated rumor mill is burning hot about it.

I'm particularly interested in Brian Wilson and Trent Reznor, and they are the reason I'm going.

The show is solidly sold out at face ticket prices of $40 (lawn), $75 (back seats), $150 (front seats). The best seats have gone in Ticketmaster auction in the low thousands. Yes, it's a ton of money, but the big differences between this and some spudnut like Roger Waters are:

* You get to see a ton of bands and well over eight hours of music.

* The show you see here is truly unique. It's not some touring circus that does the same thing over-and-over.

* There's a fair amount of interplay between all the musicians in all the bands.

* Some of the money (I have no idea how much) is going to a good cause.

Don't get me wrong, I don't pay face value (I still think it's an obscene amount), but I understand it better than the average show.

My only complaint with the Bridge Benefit Concert, and Neil's involvement specifically, is I just hate it when a cause is chosen by a celebrity merely because that specific problem has touched their lives. There are a myriad of people who fight mountainous problems everyday and get no help, merely because they aren't celebrities. It kind of rubs me the wrong way, and at it's core, is the reason why something like Live 8 trumps the Bridge Concert (Bob Geldolf never had a relative die of starvation in Ethiopia).

It's Showtime

I get to the show a tad late (for reasons you'll find out in a later post), score a $20 lawn ticket immediately and go in. The lawn is already nearly filled, but there are picnic tables at the very back. After running into an old pal of mine, I stake the corner of a table in the dead center and it's great -- I have back support (I can lean against the wall of the venue), a place to sit between tedious set changes, and a table to txt and eat my barbecue beef sandwich on. It's a nice, warm, Fall afternoon. I'm already loving it.

Devendra Banhart

I got there late and missed him. Sorry, Devendra. Gimme a free ticket and I promise I'll go see you next time you're in Northern CA, Vegas or Denver.

Gillian Welch

Hot off a well-received appearance at the San Francisco Bluegrass Festival (free, and gigantic, in Golden Gate Park), she turns in a very strong set. Country and bluegrass artists are mildly favored in the all-acoustic and varied environment of Bridge -- partially because it's their native format, and also since the crowd isn't very conversant in country music -- it all sounds very new and fresh compared to the rest of the line-up.

Near the end of the set, Neil Young comes out and joins her on guitar and harmonica for a rendition of "Country Man." It's smokingly sweet and will end up being my favorite track of the entire day. Nice one, Gillian.

Death Cab for Cutie

The hip-and-cool band does in fact deteriorate on stage. They are clearly nervous and well out of their environment in acoustic only. They're bad enough that the Cab fans near me start the set by dancing but end up sitting back down on the grass and either talking to each other or making out. (Because, honestly, if it's a question of smooching or wincing as one of your favorite bands implodes, the answer is pretty obvious what you should do.)

My table-mate says to me in Spanish, "These guys suck." I respond with "Where is El Tri when you need them?" He laughs and smokes a joint the size of a Hebrew National in one toke. I offer him my bag of sour cream potato chips. We're now both the closest and best of friends.

The show is already everything I could hope for, and we're only three bands in. I'm loving it.

Trent Reznor

Trent is the man behind Nine Inch Nails, a band that at one time was the commercial forefront of (what I'll call for the lack of not giving a damn what's actually "correct" in the splintered music naming movement) the industrial trance movement. NIN hit my radar when they had radio success with "Closer." I bought a few CD's and liked what I heard.

As background, on a whim, I went to their show in Oakland a few months ago (for free, thanks, because I sold another pair of tickets at double-face). Trent understands that a show has to be an experience and his form of expression was an all-out assault on my ears, eyes and brain. I've seen a lot of shows in my life, and it was easily in the top five.

Between acts (by the way, one of the openers was Autolux -- a spectacular band, seek them out) at that show I did my standard custom of stopping by the merchandise booth (I never buy anything because it's all too expensive). On the corner of the obligatory pegboard, below the zillionty black t-shirts, they had a CD that was being over-looked by everyone else.

"What's the story with that CD?" I ask the fat goth-er running the booth.

"I don't know, dude. Check it yourself," and she throws me a copy.

It's looks like it's some sort of collection of re-done Nine Inch Nails songs.

"How much?" Fearing the typical concert rip-off fees, i'm guessing it'll be at least $20-$25.

And here comes the weird part. "I don't know, dude. Hang one sec. I need to check the list." Let me get this straight: we're at a concert, we're here for the music and yet no one has asked about this disc? This means they've sold hundreds of t-shirts, but not a single CD. Weird. She's back, "It's $10."

I snap it up and listen to it much later at home. It's mostly covers of NIN songs that have been stripped down relatively bare and it is superb. In fact, it's my favorite disc of theirs. I research it a bit (I don't remember the name off the top of my head, and I don't feel like digging through my music this second, I think it's Still), and it's a disc that is sold only at NIN shows -- not commercially, not even off their Web site at that point. A quick check of eBay showed it selling on the high side for $75 a copy.

This spells good news for a show like Bridge, because it means that Trent has already re-considered his catalog and if you're going to really lay it down at Bridge, you need to. And of the whole line-up, he's got the hardest trick -- just how do you go from dark, stormy and powerful (with synths, no less) to acoustic?

Trent takes the stage just as darkness has set in and his answer to the question is to take a quartet of string players: two cellos, a violin and a switch hitter that mostly plays acoustic bass. Amazingly, he's using no percussion. Their approach will be to play almost exclusively low and mildly vibrato. A daring ploy well outside his usual baliwick -- in fact this group has been both assembled and arranged exclusively for this show.

This is the musical equivalent of cliff diving into a family swimming pool. It'll be hit-or-miss, shooting for the smallest of targets, and a miss won't be pretty.

He opens softly and like some twisted form of bolero, gets louder as he goes. Doing this means they'll end up being the only musicians of the day to play with the volume of their performance (since the dissolution of big bands 65 years ago, the concept of manipulating volume, especially live, has been greatly diminished -- in the last 40 years, with the popularity of radio broadcast and threshold antennuation, it's gone completely away -- this is one of the fundamental differences between classical and modern music). To top this off, there's a chinese folk reverberation fiddle in the mix (think one-string national guitar, standing on end, that's played by bowing).

This is not an orchestral version of a NIN song, this is a completely new arrangements. His concept is brilliant and it works. The area of the crowd that I'm in is riveted to the performance and all conversation has completely stopped.
I don't know the NIN catalog well enough to know the songs by name, but most of his set is very recognizable. As he works his way through, the performance reminds me very much of seeing a snake that's been unknowingly run over by a car on a hot stretch of desert highway. It slithers, it writhes, it's in pain and possibly fatally hurt, but it's beautiful in the very nature of what it is.

And no, he doesn't play "Closer" (the repeating verse of which you probably know: "I want to fuck you like an animal. I want to feel you from the inside.")

Full marks. A performance that in itself was worth the hassle of going and price of admission for me.

But wait, there's more.

The Foo Fighters

Although I'm not a fan, frontman Dave Grohl may be the most amazing modern musician playing today. To walk out of the flaming dirigible that was Nirvana and become successful in another band, on a different instrument, is truly amazing.

I saw the Foo Fighters play acoustic for the first time ever at a Bridge show a few years ago. They were timid then, and openly admitted it, but played as well and fearlessly as their tainted nerves would let them.

This time was different. Grohl mentioned being scared the first time, but was comfortable and having fun with his band. A good strong set of several recognizable songs -- my only complaint is they're taking the cheap approach of just using acoustic instruments rather than reworking the songs. He should take a hint from Beck -- last time he performed Bridge he played half Hank Williams covers (a chilling version of "Lonesome Whistle") and half of his own music rearranged as mariachi and sung in Spanish ("Jackass" becomes "Burro").

The band shows confidence and heart. They're very good.

Brian Wilson

There's an overly long break between The Foo Fighters and Brian Wilson. When my table mate mentions it to me (in English, this time), I say, "Maybe he's not coming."


And I go on to explain how Brian Wilson, the heart, soul and genius behind the Beach Boys went clinically insane while working on an album following Pet Sounds called SMiLE. It was essentially the Beach Boys' equivalent to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band that got shelved when he "went away." What's amazing is he comes back and finishes the album, some 40 years later and still very much psychologically damaged (but heavily drugged). {Aside - I sat behind Neil Young when Wilson performed this piece in its entirety live in San Francisco.}

About the time I finish my overly long explanation, Wilson comes out. He's using the same keyboardist, guitarists, drummers and (super-great) percussionist that he used for the SMiLE shows. What's missing are his ultra-cute Swedish string section.

My table mate insists I stand top and center on the table ("You know so much about this dude, he's your man!").

He opens with "Our Prayer" from SMiLE, a track I consider to be the greatest vocal harmonic work of the 20th century. The only problem is this track was previously released by the Beach Boys (you can hear an abbreviated clip of the demo sample here) and they have an edge over all other harmonic bands that would later be assembled to cover Beach Boys music. Why? Because the the band was all related -- the voices naturally blended (no advantage like a genetic advantage, eh?).

Nevertheless, it's one of the only songs that is sure to physically raise goosebumps on me, and it did this time as well.

They march another two tracks into SMiLE and I'm wondering if they're actually going to go ahead and just roll through the whole disc. I'd love it if they did, but the crowd isn't recognizing these songs and it wouldn't be a popular choice.

He stops at three tracks, though, and drops into a series of Beach Boys songs. The crowd is instantly up on their feet and dancing. "Fun, Fun, Fun," a great version of "Help Me Rhonda," and "Surfin' USA," to name a few. He even, for totally unexplainable reasons, throws in a cover of "Johnny B. Goode." The high point is "Sloop John B," which sends my stoner pal into paroxysms of "You rock! You rock! You rock!" flailing at the air with a fist as though he were defending himself from a final death blow by Mike Tyson.

Wilson brings down the house. Everyone here knows these songs. About 15% of the crowd is old enough to remember the hits when they were first on the radio, everyone else has been inundated with them either from oldies radio or grocery store muzak since. And no one in my eyeshot from the very top of the bowl appears to hate him.

The band fires from the audience enthusiasm and this will end up being the crowd favorite of the night.

The low point is when Wilson attempts "Good Vibrations," (a song the Beach Boys never did perfect live) with Neil Young playing a pump organ. To reproduce the science-fiction sounding theramin, they use a flute -- it works, but the rest of the song doesn't. No matter. A bucket of water doesn't put out a forest fire, it only hisses and steams.

I thought he was very good, but the tease of starting with SMiLE and then walking away from it hurt. I would've loved to see a fully-acoustic SMiLE.

Pearl Jam

Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam come out. They've done a dozen Bridge Shows and are old hats. Vedder is the last standing frontman of the true grunge movement -- and age has done nothing but improve his voice and overall intensity for his type of music. He turns in a powerful, inspired and poignant set. Very strong.

He's also having fun in a big way at one point doing a song that I can sort of catch (in intent, not in exact lyrics) here:

"I'm going to play a song I've never tried before"

I broke up with my girlfriend
and opened a liquor store

I sit in torment
and wonder about my life

One night she walks right in
I stare and say "What do you want?"

She says, "Liquor." So I licker.
And now I don't feel so bad.

He puts down his guitar and smiles. The crowd, at least those who have figured it out, roar with approval. Eddie looks off-stage at Neil and smirks, "Just tryin' to get one past the kids."

The high point is a cover of Mirrorball, an older song written by Neil Young for Pearl Jam. They perform it together, and it's great.

The low point is Pearl Jam's keyboardist is trying to play the pump organ and can't pump it fast enough to get a constant tone. Hint for the future: Try an instrument before you play it in front of a crowd of 20,000.

The End

And it's here that I leave the concert. Even though Neil Young has yet to play (and I like him very, very much), the Dave Matthews Band is playing first. I hate them. Matthews's voice is whiney/wandery and he does it exclusively as a gimmick. They are a big-time chick band, so whenever he does his cutesy shuffley feet thing, I'll have to listen to five thousand overweight, heat-flashing women squeal with delight.

The ONLY up-side of DM, is it's possible Neil would come out and play a cover of "Cortez the Killer" with him (they've done that in the past) and that is truly remarkable (NB: turns out he did cover that song). Even so, I don't even want to be in the same venue as that lame-bag and I've already seen over six hours of music/fest. No thanks, I'm off-ski.

Overall, it's the best Bridge show I've been to. Very strong as a set and a nice wide range of musicians. The weather was super-great, and even though there were no surprise guests, I loved it. I went by myself but talked with my table mates, txt'd and ate during the breaks. A very pleasant afternoon and well worth the 20-spot.

On my walk back to my car on Shorebird, I was passed by a few concert goers. Every one of them spoke to me. If that doesn't describe a pleasant evening where everyone's happy, nothing does.

{hope you enjoyed it, madam. wish you could have been there, you would have really really enjoyed it.}


Blogger kingfeddy said...

Thanks for the write up. Wish I was there, but I'm so far out of it, I rarely know what is going on....

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 6:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

that was tasty good -- thanks for taking the trouble.

it's not easy to write about something that's all vibration and emotion like music -- I'm regularly impressed by how you make the experience tangible. you've got a gift -- or as the guy on the table said: you know so much about this, dude.

(and knowing now that you're not inclined to say no, I'll give careful consideration to my next request.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 9:23:00 PM  
Blogger Lolabola said...

Love that Death Cab for Cutie bombed. Hate Dave Matthews and was relieved you left and I didn't feel compelled to read about him. It's possible I could appreciate Dave Grohl now even though I find the Foo Fighters unbearably boring. Have just spent 10 min. re-listening to old Beach Boys tunes.....It's true, you are very good at writing about these things.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006 7:19:00 AM  
Blogger b1-66er said...

thanks for the kind comments, one and all.

there was a period of time in my life where music was the most important thing in my life (i'm not sure i can tell you what is right now) and to use a trite expression, i'm very passionate about it. most of it i take very personally since it's aimed at me as a person. i guess some of that comes out in what i write.

i'd never taken the beach boys very seriously (in fact, i didn't have any of their records in a voluminous collection) until a few years ago i got a good deal on their box set. i knew it had a bunch of outtakes and demos from the smile sessions and i was entrigued.

the liner notes are written by a very smart and very devoted beach boys fan and the layout and collecton of the set are superb. it took me from being on the fence about the boys to being a huge huge fan. i highly recommend this set if you have any interest in the inner workings of the music industry, or the concept of influences and expressions of 20th century music. i'd guess i own 50 box sets, and it's my very favorite of all (more astonishing when you consider that the emphasis of my music taste is in r&b, soul and funk).

Wednesday, October 25, 2006 3:56:00 PM  

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