I love Neil and Pegi Young. We’re just back from the their two-day Bridge School Benefit Concert and I’m sad that I don’t have another 8-hour rock concert to go to this week. Apart from the wonderful music and the chance to see my family, what struck me was the incredibly positive vibe permeating the Shoreline Amphitheatre—on the stage, backstage, and in the crowd. The Bridge School helps children with severe speech and physical impairments with alternative means of communication, assistive technologies, and other strategies that greatly improve their lives. Many of the current students and their families were at the concert and there was a place reserved up on the stage for about 40 of the students during every act. They came and went all weekend and it was amazing to see the love emanating from these families. I was standing on the side of the stage for most of the weekend and was moved to tears many times watching the performers interact with the kids on stage. The vast majority of these kids were in wheelchairs and many could only communicate through the state-of-the-art computer screens that were attached to their chairs. The students had a fantastic time at the show. They clearly love Neil and Pegi Young, the teachers and administrators of this amazing school, and the music itself. I saw Neil Young’s grown son Ben rocking to the music from his wheelchair. Both of Young’s sons, Zeke (with Carrie Snodgress), 36, and Ben (with Pegi), 30, have cerebral palsy which is, I assume, what led Pegi to found the fabulous Bridge School many years ago.
I can’t think of a better cause than this benefit and I’m just now realizing how refreshing it was to be at such a commercial-free event—most mega-concerts like this are dripping in corporate endorsements and product placements. I plan to go back every year even when Wilco isn’t playing. Sometimes I forget how transforming music can be—I loved every second of the two-day concert. If I wasn’t related to Jeff, I wonder if I would have discovered Wilco’s music on my own or learned to appreciate any of the other bands that I’ve been exposed to through them. I’m so grateful for that. For whatever reason, music was not a big part of my childhood (unless your definition of music includes 1960s TV show themes) and it’s only been as an adult that I’ve come to truly understand the myriad ways music can enrich the soul and help us understand ourselves better. Sorry if that sounds too sappy, I’m still coming down from my Bridge School high.
Of the bands we saw during the two days, I’d have to say that besides Wilco (who did two great acoustic sets), my favorite acts were Norah Jones, Death Cab for Cutie, and Cat Power. I never followed Norah Jones much but will from now on. I really enjoyed her music, especially in her latest country-infused incarnation accompanied by bassist Catherine Popper and banjo player and guitarist Sasha Dobson. Jones covered one of Jeff’s songs, “Jesus, etc.” both days and I obnoxiously joked to Jeff that I finally understood what that song was about after hearing her version. You know that cliche about how some people “make love to the camera?” In person, Norah Jones seemed very nice, very pretty, and very petite. But I was amazed every time I looked up at the video screen and saw her transformed into a stunningly beautiful goddess of song who could rival Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner in sheer sensuality. Am I embarrassing myself yet? Yes. I was so worried that I’d do just that during the show that I squelched the urge to talk to her whenever she was nearby, but my 8-year-old nephew Sammy bonded with her on several occasions, showing her all of his recent wounds.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Death Cab for Cutie, especially Ben Gibbard’s literate lyrics and strong voice. My 12-year-old nephew Spencer asked Gibbard to call his bandmate Henry, a big Death Cab fan, on his cell phone and Gibbard gamefully agreed. At home in Chicago, Henry was thrilled. I was busy trying not to stalk Gibbard’s girlfriend, actress Zooey Deschanel, who was so good in last season’s “Weeds” and is supposed to be starring in a movie about the last day of Janis Joplin’s life. I also liked Cat Power, especially her set on Sunday when she hoisted herself over the stage and went deep into the audience, singing her plaintive lyrics in her ethereal, unpolished style. Back in the day Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) used to play my sister’s bar Lounge Ax and was known for being painfully shy. She seems far more confident now (despite a few self-deprecating remarks about how her set was going on Saturday) and was joined by Neil Young at the end of her set on both days for a powerful duet.
Young joined most of the acts at the end of their sets, even Josh Groban who seemed slightly out of place at this event with his superb but decidedly non-rock voice. How old is that guy, he looked all of 17! We also enjoyed excellent sets by Band of Horses, Sarah MacLachlan, and Smashing Pumpkins. Leah and seemingly every young girl in the amphitheatre was excited to see heartthrob Jack Johnson perform a bunch of his latest hits. At one point, when I was watching Neil Young from a platform on the side of the stage, I glanced over to the ground level and saw Leah standing alone with Johnson whispering something into his ear. I then saw him leave the stage and walk into his dressing room, with Leah following closely behind. Huh? My daughter appeared a second later looking quite pleased. She had asked Johnson to sign her all-access pass and he left the performing area to go find a sharpie, God love him.
Kendall and I want to avoid appearing as “hangers-on” at these events so we try to stay fairly invisible. Still, every time Neil Young walked by me I seemed to be devouring a huge plate of food. Oy, was it my fault the catering was so good? Despite being surrounded by great artists backstage, we had our own moment of celebrity when we went up to the lawn to visit our friends Michelle and Steve. Kendall took Leah to get a snack and someone in the massive crowd shouted over to her. She recognized Kendall and Leah...from my blog! Too funny. Mary...I'm sorry I never got a chance to meet you!
All of the artists joined Neil and Pegi at the end of the show for a moving version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and then Young’s own “Comes a Time.” What a lovefest.
Considering we’re only a week away from the election, there was a surprising lack of political comments although you’d have been hard pressed to find a McCain supporter on the stage or in the crowd. At one point the camera showed a close-up of Young’s “Hippies for Obama” button to great cheers. Jeff commented on the flag lapel pin he was wearing and then taunted the crowd for not wearing theirs. “Oh yeah, I forgot…this is California,” he said, mocking Sarah Palin’s ravings about the “real” America. The most political person at the concert was 8-year-old Sam Tweedy who recently perfected his dead-on John McCain impersonation (“My friends…”). Sammy would answer every question posed to him in perfect McCain patter. He eventually turned to Palin and rivaled Tina Fey in his ability to capture the essence of the Alaska governor (Sammy: “I don’t mind losing the election because I never really wanted to be Vice President…I want to be PRESIDENT!”). He needs to go on the road with his McCain/Palin act. His brother Spencer is also deeply involved in the current election and displays a sophistication far beyond his 12 years on his excellent blog. In addition to insightful political commentary and computer expertise, check out Spencer’s running feature, “When You Ask an Eight-Year-Old” that includes such gems as the following:
What happens when you ask
an eight year old…
What are the best bands ever?
They might answer:
• Avenged Seven-Fold,because they have the bestest songs ever
• The Beatles, because they don’t look like pigs
• Kiss, because they dress like weirdos
• Randy Newman, because he is obsessed with happiness
• Guns N’ Roses, because they have ‘gun’ in their name
I can’t believe I thought I was unfamiliar with Neil Young’s music when I wrote the previous post. The minute he started singing I recognized his iconic lyrics and distinctive voice. What an incredible career and what a fine human being. His huge talent and his respect for other artists, his social and political activism, and his tireless efforts on the part of the disabled make him a role model like few others in the rock world. Young’s wife Pegi emanates a positive energy that spreads to everyone in her presence. Interestingly, she bears such a strong resemblance to my sister that twice during the show I waved to her thinking it was Sue. Even at the party at the Youngs’ house on Friday night, Sue was approached twice by the caterers, thinking she was Pegi. The Youngs have endured more than their share of life challenges, including Neil’s recent brain aneurysm, yet they keep going, spreading dignity and love wherever they are. “Everybody’s life is hard,” Neil Young told a reporter in 2005 following his life-threatening aneurysm. “You look at life, and it’s not a cakewalk. Things happen, and you’ve got to be able to bounce back.”
Update: I just found this video of Norah Jones singing Jeff's song, “Jesus, etc.” from Sunday night's show. Not a great quality vid, but I loved her version of the song: