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Live review: Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit

October 26, 2009 | 12:10 am

Neil Young and Co. give the kids a great show, and Young gives his fellow performers a great example.


Reporting from Mountain View, Calif. - The direct impact of Neil Young's annual Bridge School Benefit Concerts is as plain as the joyful faces of the special-needs school's students, many of whom watch each year from an onstage riser placed right behind the performers.

Those faces were often captured by the video cameras that were otherwise trained on the stars of this year's shows, which got underway Saturday at Shoreline Amphitheatre just north of San Jose with unplugged sets by No Doubt, Coldplay's Chris Martin, Jimmy Buffett, Sheryl Crow, Monsters of Folk, Fleet Foxes, Wolfmother and Gavin Rossdale. Adam Sandler was scheduled to take over Buffett's slot as the only change on Sunday's lineup.

In a fairly understated way, Young and his wife, Pegi, the event's co-organizer, have a school of their own going in this show, one that trains newcomers in service to a cause higher than merely entertaining fans, and how to go about it with class and humility.

"Thanks for being here," Neil said when he finally took the Shoreline stage just before midnight on Saturday. His succinct statement applied as much to the other musicians as to the crowd, which appeared close to filling the 22,000-capacity amphitheater.

Young's performance also tacitly addressed the dual focal points of the concert -- he would turn his back to the crowd, wander back to the riser and play for the students, who include his son, Ben, who has cerebral palsy. Their faces would light up, and then he'd return to the front of the stage to do the same for the paying audience.

Others did the same to varying degrees throughout the evening. Gwen Stefani spent most of No Doubt's first number behind Adrian Young's drum kit singing to the children. The emotion caught up with her midway through their set -- unplugged, as is the modus operandi for all Bridge School artists -- in a performance of "Simple Kind of Life."

"This is very emotional," said Stefani, who choked up and had to grab a tissue when she finished. "These children and their parents are so inspiring." Apparently big girls do cry.

The esteem musicians hold for the mission of the event and its founders is hard to overstate. And impossible to miss. Virtually every act described their part in the show as "an honor," "a privilege" or both.

"This is my favorite gig in the world," said Crow at the top of her 30-minute set, "after 20 years of touring."

In stepping away from Coldplay for the weekend, Martin managed to be inspiring and playful. He opened with an instrumental version of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" born somewhere between the funhouse and the madhouse.

From there he touched on Coldplay signature tunes including "Clocks," "Yellow" and "Viva La Vida," finishing with a delightfully loopy singalong of the Penguins' doo-wop hit "Earth Angel" that turned into one of those inexplicably touching moments that likely will be etched forever in the memory of those who were there.

Monsters of Folk, the indie-rock supergroup consisting of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, My Morning Jacket's Jim James and She and Him's M. Ward, turned in a monstrously impressive display of musical democracy, approaching some of the heights the Band reached in its heyday.

The one act that evidenced any strain at the sonic seams was Wolfmother, which appeared a bit lost from time to time trying to adapt its megawatt-dependent, Zeppelin-esque music to the all-acoustic performance.

Young brought everyone out at the end for a reprise of "Comes a Time," with which he'd launched the show 6 1/2 hours earlier and which is sort of his version of the "a time for everything" passage in Ecclesiastes that Pete Seeger long ago transformed into "Turn! Turn! Turn!"

It crystallized the bona fide sense of community he and Pegi have created. It's not that he is planning to ride off into the sunset any time soon. But Young seems to be taking the requisite steps so that, when he does, he'll know others will pick up the torch.



GWEN_BRIDGE -PHOTOS: Neil Young and friends perform at the Bridge School Benefit Concert
-Bridge benefit: No Doubt's Gwen Stefani tears up; Neil Young wraps up
-Bridge benefit: Sheryl Crow's 'favorite gig in the world'
Bridge benefit: Gavin Rossdale, Wolfmother, Fleet Foxes go unplugged
-Bridge benefit: Chris Martin goes Coldplay-ful

Top photo: Sheryl Crow, from left, Pegi Young and Neil Young. Bottom photo: Gwen Stefani. Credits: Randi Lynn Beach / For The Times