Neil Young refuses to tour in support of his new album, Sleeps With Angels, because he feels its songs are too personal to perform live. Pearl Jam canceled its summer outing over a feud with Ticketmaster. And Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers haven’t hit the road since 1991. But they all showed up on the weekend of Oct. 1 for a six-hour extravaganza at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in suburban Mountain View, Calif. The occasion: the eighth annual Bridge School benefit, a mostly acoustic concert series hosted by Young to help fund the Bay Area school for severely disabled children. The school was cofounded in 1986 by his wife, Pegi; the couple’s son, Ben, 15, was born with cerebral palsy.
Although the concert has become a hip, musically blue-chip event, the show had the air of a casual get-together. The crowd of 21,000 that filled the venue on the first of two nights was a mixture of teens and boomers. Few fans paid attention to the openers, Peter Droge and Mazzy Star, and noisy industrial rockers Ministry rated high only on the curiosity scale, but it was Indigo Girls who first sparked the crowd.
Then came the headliners. Tom Petty played a too-relaxed set consisting solely of recent material (”Free Fallin’,” ”Last Dance With Mary Jane”), disappointing those hoping to hear his classics. The audience perked up only when he sang about pot and other drugs — although one frustrated young woman remarked, ”What is this, a Cypress Hill show? I wanna hear ‘American Girl.”’
Four hours into the concert, Pearl Jam took the stage to cheers and screams of Beatlemaniac proportions. But the band, seated in a semicircle with former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons on percussion, responded with a modest set of relatively unfamiliar material, including the new ”Corduroy.” His shoulder-length hair tumbling out from beneath a Chicago Cubs cap, the normally hyper Eddie Vedder sat nearly motionless, slightly hunched, hands in his lap as he sang. Although the songs were often rendered indistinct by overstrummed acoustic guitars, it was a solemn and adventurous performance — and apparently too subtle for a dozen young Pearl Jam fans, who left grumbling after the band’s 30-minute set.
Their loss. Pearl Jam may have seemed restrained by the acoustic setting, but Young thrived on it, coaxing feedback from his amplified acoustic guitar and ripping away at the strings. When he played intimate numbers from Sleeps With Angels, the audience listened with rapt attention. The title song — written about Kurt Cobain — mourns the premature death of a talented artist: ”He sleeps with angels (too soon)/He’s always on someone’s mind.” But Young pointedly followed up ”Angels” with ”Rust Never Sleeps,” whose refrain — ”It’s better to burn out than to fade away” — Cobain quoted in his suicide note. In Young’s hands, the song was no longer a flag of surrender. As his wife, their son, and his classmates listened and Young spit out the lines ”Once you’re gone you can’t come back,” it was, instead, a clarion call to never retreat, never surrender.