MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — Neil Young’s annual Bridge School Benefit concerts traditionally take place around Halloween, so you’ll have to forgive the 20,000 fans at this weekend’s second show if they think they saw rock and roll ghosts on Sunday.
Yes, that was a leather-clad Billy Idol holding a cheat sheet while singing Buffalo Springfield’s Vietnam-era protest anthem “For What It’s Worth” as host Young stomped around ripping off stinging solos on an acoustic guitar. Although it was one of the strangest phantasms, the ghosts of the past were lurking all over on that crisp fall day.
In an all-star acoustic event known for strange-bedfellow hook-ups — Sunday’s included Dave Matthews with Tracy Chapman and Pearl Jam with Ben Harper — it was not the collaborations, but the apropos covers and new songs that were the hallmark of this year’s shows.
And unlike the traditional show-closing all-star jam, this time Young and his pals were mute at night’s end. Their silence made for some of the most powerful, moving music of all. As Young — sporting a by-now-familiar FDNY baseball cap — and Crazy Horse performed an instrumental version of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” placards with the song’s lyrics were displayed on the video screens for the audience to raise its voice and recite the song’s humanitarian message.
Though the shows benefited the Bridge School, co-founded by Young and his wife for children with physical and speech impairments, pleas for peace, tolerance and understanding were the order of the day.
Young opened the event with his traditional solo rendering of “Sugar Mountain” as well as a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He would reprise the song at night’s end in a subdued performance with his usually raucous cohorts in Crazy Horse. “How many times must the cannon balls fly/ Before they’re forever banned?” Young sang in his quavering voice, summing up the tenor of many of the day’s sets.
R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe apologized in advance for any “bum notes” he might hit during the band’s majestic performance of “Everybody Hurts.” It was unclear if he was talking about his sore throat or the difficulty of hitting high notes while singing the lines, “Everybody hurts/ Everybody cries … hold on.” But when he bowed his head and raised his right hand in a peace sign at song’s end, it seemed certain emotion was at the forefront of his mind.
Matthews took the stage alone and performed a restrained set that included the duet with four-time Bridge veteran Chapman on the humble paean “Eyes of the Maker” as well as a bittersweet solo cover of Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away.”
Five-time Bridge School performers Pearl Jam opened with a rousing tribute to the school’s students, who took their traditional spot on a riser at the back of the stage. “You can figure out who this is for,” Eddie Vedder beamed as the band ripped through the Who’s “The Kids Are Alright.”
Vedder, wearing a green army jacket and khaki pants, prefaced “Last Soldier,” the second of two new songs the band performed Sunday, by saying that guitarist Mike McCready had written the tune just a week earlier. The folky, vintage Neil Young-like song featured lines about a new generation’s trepidation about going to war.
“There’s no time for laughing/ There’s no time to cry/ Soon I will be leaving/ Look me in the eye,” Vedder sang, his eyes half-closed. “The oath I took not so seriously/ My decision’s been made/ By someone I can’t see/ I don’t know them, and they don’t know me.”
Vedder took on a Dylan-esque snarl for Lennon’s “Give Me Some Truth,” spitting out the lines “I’ve had enough of reading things by neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians,” as the band picked up steam behind him and the song came crashing to a crescendo. After an intense duet with Harper on “Indifference” and the live debut of “Low Light,” the set closed with the band’s playful cover of Arthur Alexander’s “Solider of Love,” in which Vedder pleaded, “Lay down your arms/ And surrender to me.”
While artists traditionally tone down their sets for the Bridge shows, someone apparently forgot to tell ’80s rocker and three-time show veteran Idol. Decked out in full leather gear, dark shades and trademark sneer, Idol performed raunchy, fist-shaking versions of his hits (“Cradle of Love,” “Eyes Without a Face,” “Rebel Yell”) while slapping hands and mugging for the kids. Guitarist Steve Stevens accompanied Idol on a toned-down version of “White Wedding,” with the singer supplying percussion by slapping his leather-clad bum.
While Idol updated the lines to “For What It’s Worth” to suit the times (“Nobody’s right if Donald Rumsfeld’s wrong”), it was Young’s reworking of his 1987 song “Mideast Vacation” that highlighted his show-closing performance. In a set that included “Long May You Run,” “Love and Only Love” and a cover of the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” it was a spectral, spooky rendition of the forgotten ’80s song that made the loudest sound.
Accompanied by the crashing of cymbals and an ominous gong, Young and Crazy Horse performed a haunting version of the prophetic tune. “I went lookin’ for Bin Laden aboard Air Force One,” Young sang, replacing the song’s original pariah, Muammar Qadhafi, with today’s enemy. “They chanted, ‘Death to America’/ I was feelin’ like a fight,” Young sang, his voice sounding weary and confused. “When they burned me in effigy/ My vacation was complete.”
It was hard to forget who the show was for, but this year’s Bridge gracefully managed to pay tribute to the kids and a world in need of some healing.