Organized by Neil Young and his wife Pegi, the Bridge School Benefit -- begun in 1986 and held each year since 1988 in Mountain View, California -- is one of the world's few music festivals with a mission, sound, and vibe truly like no other. The couple started these shows to build a school for their own children, and kids like them, with severe physical and speech impairments.
The students, the teachers, the alumni, and their parents sit on the stage's raised platform in wheelchairs and chairs facing the audience and the backs of the performers, who this year included the reunion of Young's early band Buffalo Springfield, Pearl Jam, Elton John and Leon Russell, Elvis Costello, and other veteran acts. The music is played almost exclusively on acoustic instruments, and the kids are often sung to directly. There's no glamour; instead, a refreshing abundance of unconditional love.
This creates a situation where things succeed that would in any other situation likely fail. Young has longed to reunite Buffalo Springfield -- a band that only lasted 25 months from 1966 to '68 but created one of the era's defining anthems, "For What It's Worth," and provided the stylistic link between the Byrds and subsequent West Coast country-rock bands -- at least since 2000, when he released "Buffalo Springfield Again" on his nostalgic Silver & Gold album.
The results of this weekend's reunion, the group's first onstage appearance in 42 years, were vocally compromised; a suited and nearly unrecognizable Steven Stills struggled to sing and often looked stricken with fear. Richie Furay, a Christian rock pioneer, also strained to recreate his youthful tenor. But Young's enthusiasm and the camaraderie between old friends carried the set at the end of each day's seven-hour bill: Their influence and concern for each other and the children behind them was palpable.
The Bridge School Benefits have for many years brought out the best in Pearl Jam, which has long looked to Young as a musical and spiritual mentor. This year, the grunge survivors were particularly tight and radiant with gratitude: Bereft of electric guitars and joined in part by a four-person string section, they also sounded a lot like R.E.M. at its popularity peak. Drawing on songs throughout a career exactly 20 years long, Pearl Jam's two sets overlapped little: Saturday night featured a faithfully rich rendition of Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot"; Sunday night included the fast and punky "Lukin" complete with incongruous but welcome strings. Both nights Eddie Vedder addressed specific Bridge School students and alumni by name: This was clearly a family affair.
Sunday afternoon's unquestionable highlight was T-Bone Burnett's Speaking Clock Revue. Pairing exceptionally proficient musicians with equally expressive singers is the Academy and Grammy Award-winning musician's specialty. Here he assembled a large band for Elvis Costello, Neko Case, actor Jeff Bridges, bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley, and Elton John with Leon Russell.
Costello remains a consummate songwriter and entertainer: Saturday night he accommodated Emmylou Harris, who wasn't on the bill but contributed sweet harmony vocals throughout his set to songs like the standard "Love Hurts." Sunday afternoon a well-dressed Costello premiered songs from his excellent forthcoming album National Ransom; his only oldie was set opener "Brilliant Mistake."
After powerhouse vocals from Case and decidedly less adept but still sincere singing from Bridges, the John/Russell collaboration got off to an uncertain start: The mix was harsh, and their grand piano playing was out of sync. But once the sound problems were resolved and the musicians hit a groove, the results evoked old-time boogie-woogie rock'n'roll as if extravagantly arranged in a wall of sound by Phil Spector. The set drew exclusively from the pair's just-released The Union album. Featuring horns, banjo and wailing R&B background singers, "Monkey Suit" evoked Elton at his Honky Chateau-era best.
Although Grizzly Bear and Modest Mouse opened each day's concerts with contemporary sounds, Saturday's bill was particularly heavy with veteran singer-songwriters -- Jackson Browne with David Lindley, Lucinda Williams, and Kris Kristofferson, who all performed movingly but sedately.
By contrast, Saturday night's strongest and most unexpected set came from Billy Idol. Brash and theatrical, carrying himself like the quintessential rock star he's always been, Idol's the Elvis Presley who never got fat. Joined by his longtime guitarist Steve Stevens, he knocked out a set heavy on songs from his punk-era band Generation X. Although it's hardly unlikely that the many hippie grandparents in the crowd were familiar with such underexposed punk-pop anthems as "Ready Steady Go" and "Kiss Me Deadly," his undistinguished energy and stage command was startling and unexpectedly embraced. Even during a gentle peace 'n' love fest like Bridge School, rocking out courageously and wholeheartedly is a welcome, cherished thing.