After almost two decades, Northern California’s Bridge School Benefit still has the advantage of being a rare fundraiser with a personal purpose. The school, which provides education for children with severe speech and physical impairments, was co-founded by Pegi Young, Neil Young’s wife. Current students sit on risers at the back of the stage throughout the always-acoustic show, their faces appearing on video screens during the performances and reminding the audience of the cause. Most years, it makes for intense, one-of-a-kind performances; this year’s show was no exception.
Young opened the show with a traditional three-song run through his older work — “Sugar Mountain,” “Mother Earth,” and “Comes a Time” — before turning the stage over to a number of bands making their Bridge School debuts.
Many of the debuting groups used the acoustic format as a chance to unveil new songs and rarely-played covers. Counting Crows wove Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” in and out of their “Rain King” during a passionate set that also contained the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” Wilco’s typically gritty set included an extremely economical take on the usually busy “Sunken Treasure” as well as a bevy of newer tunes, including “Bob Dylan’s Beard” and “Radio.” Incubus — hands down the surprise draw of the day — rearranged older material, creating an unusually sparse “Pardon Me” and a regrettable free-form take on the usually funky “Are You In.”
Of the newer bands on the bill, only Dashboard Confessional ended up a disappointment. Clearly out of his element, singer Chris Carrabba led the band through newer, punkier material instead of the acoustic catalog that surely cemented his invitation to play. With a different set list, Dashboard could have gained some fans and credibility.
It was the Bridge School veterans, though, who clearly stole the show. In their second Bridge School appearance, folk duo the Indigo Girls wowed with doubled-up harmonies, mandolin acrobatics and a David Crosby sit-in on “Galileo.” Pearl Jam has made a second career in playing one-off acoustic sets at benefit shows; in their sixth Bridge School performance, they tossed off Dylan’s “Masters of War” and the Beatles “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” as if they owned them; an ad-libbed “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” (rearranged to “Old Dick Cheney Had a Plan”) and a collaboration with Young on “Long Road” were icing on an already sweet cake.
Willie Nelson’s stature as an American icon has only seemed more relevant since Johnny Cash’s death and his set here was a reminder of the precedent he’s set as a musician and performer. Backed only by his guitar and harmonica player Mickey Raphael for much of his set, Nelson blew through his classics such as “On the Road Again” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” with youthful ease. A mid-set performance of “Crazy,” a song Cash sometimes performed, was a fitting tribute.
CSNY’s closing set felt a bit anticlimactic, but “Our House” and “Helplessly Hoping” still stand out as harmony classics, and a bluesed-up “For What It’s Worth” led to a massive audience sing-along. The all-band finale of “Teach Your Children” had Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder singing to the kids in the back while Nelson and Young hammed it up for the audience out front.