MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Neil Young had only to agree to one thing to get the three remaining members of R.E.M. to sign on for this year’s Bridge School Benefit concert.
They wanted to perform a song with him. "That was one of the reasons for doing it," explained R.E.M. manager Bertis Downs. "To play with Neil, and of course to help the cause."
On Saturday night, at the conclusion of Young’s own set at the Shoreline Amphitheater, south of San Francisco, he told the audience that "some friends of mine are coming out…"
With that the members of R.E.M. – singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills – came on-stage and joined Young in a spirited performance of "Ambulance Blues."
"People clapped in recognition," said Downs, when reached on his cell phone backstage after the show. "It was a mellow night. They [the fans] weren’t screaming like it was the Beatles. Neil had just played an acoustic set for 30 or so minutes… It was cool."
Young and R.E.M. collaborated one more time during R.E.M.’s closing set on the group’s "Country Feedback" (off Out of Time), with Young playing the solo on acoustic guitar.
R.E.M.’s 40-minute set also included three songs off their new album, Up: "Suspicion," the Brian Wilson-inspired "At My Most Beautiful," and the album’s first single, "Daysleeper." "The crowd seemed to like the [the new songs]," said Downs. "’Daysleeper,’ which they’ve heard on the radio, got a little ovation, and ‘At My Most Beautiful’ is really distinctive sounding with the banjo and piano…"
R.E.M. debuted four songs off the new album – "Airport Man," "Suspicion," "Sad Professor" and "Parakeet" – at this year’s Tibetan Freedom Concert, which took place in Washington D.C. in mid-June.
At Shoreline on Saturday, they also rewarded the crowd with some hits including "Losing My Religion" and "Man On the Moon."
The R.E.M. trio were backed by red hot session drummer Joey Waronker (Beck, Smashing Pumpkins), Posies’ guitarist Ken Stringfellow and Peter Buck’s Tuatara band mate, Young Fresh Fellows’ guitarist/keyboardist Scott McCaughey, who assisted the group on their 1995-1996 Monster tour.
R.E.M. arrived in San Francisco on Wednesday to begin rehearsals, which continued on Thursday. "Neil came by Thursday and they played ‘Ambulance Blues’ and ‘Country Feedback’ with him," Downs said.
The manager added that the band members were "blown away" rehearsing with Young. In August, confirming that the group had signed on for the concert, Downs described the R.E.M. trio as "major Neil Young fans."
"The guys have always wanted to do it [play the Bridge show]," Downs said Saturday afternoon. "But it’s hard to get them all in one place at the same time. This had to be planned. They’ve been planning to do the show for over a year."
R.E.M. and Young had never performed together before. They were set to record a song together for the 1993 Sweet Relief benefit for rock songstress Victoria Williams, but, Downs said, the session had to be cancelled when former R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry became ill due to pneumonia. "The band loves Neil and I know Neil loves the band a lot," Downs said.
During an interview with SonicNet Music News in late September, Peter Buck said that the group might do other benefit concerts following the release of UP.
Young's annual all-acoustic, all-star show benefits the Bridge School for disabled children. Previous Bridge School benefit shows have featured sets from Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, Sonic Youth, Willie Nelson, David Bowie, Beck, Elvis Costello, Tracy Chapman, Patti Smith, Ministry, John Lee Hooker, Bob Dylan and Mazzy Star.
The show started off with Young’s wife Pegi, who runs the Bridge School, talking about what the school is about, and introducing the kids. Then she said, "Here’s the Bridge School’s best friend, my husband Neil Young. "And he comes out and starts playing ‘Sugar Mountain’ and it was just an incredible start to a great show," said Downs. "The whole day had a mellow California vibe… A good energy."