Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit for Children with Disabilities
Nov 17, 2011
On a late-October evening in Mountainview, California, entertainer Neil Young told concertgoers at the at San Francisco Bay area’s Shoreline Amphitheater why he was performing that night and every year since 1986: that was when he and his wife Pegi decided to found The Bridge School, located in Hillsborough, California. Neil told the audience how 27 years ago he and Pegi got the idea during a conversation about their son, Ben, who has developmental disabilities. Pegi suggested starting a school for Ben and children like him, and she thought they should have a benefit concert to raise start-up capital. Neil got some of his rock star pals, which included Bruce Springsteen, to perform at that first concert. The Bridge School Benefit debuted two years later, as did The Bridge School itself, and the rest was history.
The Bridge School is a non-profit organization who helps individuals with severe physical and speech disabilities achieve full participation in their communities. This year’s concert marked the 25th anniversary of the Bridge School Benefit and featured an impressive, multi-talented mix of Bridge School newbies and veterans that included Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Arcade Fire, Dave Matthews, Los Invisibles featuring Carlos Santana, the Foo Fighters, Beck, Mumford & Sons, Norah Jones with the Little Willies, Devendra Banhart, and Tony Bennett.
With his old battered acoustic guitar and a harmonica strapped around his neck, looking as if he was going gardening, Neil played a few of his favorites, including “Comes a Time,” “Sugar Mountain, and “Long May You Run.” He then turned to faced the families and students and families on the stage behind him, including Ben, and sand a rendition of “Heart of Gold” that made time stop. Young also joined some of his fellow performers onstage a few times during the day after his traditional afternoon serenade hours earlier.
He joined Dave Matthews for a rendition of “Oh! Susanna,” sang along with Mumford & Sons on a cover of one of his own song, “Dance Dance Dance,” and surprised Beck by singing backup halfway through his band’s rendition of “Pocahontas.”
“Wow,” said Beck, stunned. “That’s a nice surprise.” Beck also performed songs from his decade-old album Sea Change.
Eddie Vedder sang a duet entitled, “Tonight You Belong to Me” with Arcade Fire’s Régine Chassagne and sang along with Beck for the Everly Brothers’ “Sleepless Nights.” Vedder is a Bridge School Benefit regular, as this was his 10th appearance. He dedicated a song from his recent solo album to Maricor Pagsanjan, a longtime friend from the Bridge School.
“She’s my hero,” he said, giving her a sidelong glance.
In Sunday’s performance, Vedder shared the stage with Chassagne, Beck, Young and Jerry Hannan and later joked that “f—ed up” one of Young’s songs the previous night. He told Young after his set on Saturday, “You should have invited me out there to sing it with you. We could have f—ed it up together.”
Norah Jones, dressed in a black cocktail dress, played a country-style set with the Little Willies. “We started out as a Willie Nelson cover band,” she said before playing a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” on Young’s piano. “Now these guys have got to live with that name.”
Arcade Fire turned out to the biggest surprise of the night. The indie rock band rollicked through twangy versions of “Rebellion (Lies),” “The Suburbs,” and several others. Lead singer Win Butler was visibly moved and honored to be a part of the concert, getting visibly emotional.
“I can honestly say, I don’t think a lot of us would be in a band if it wasn’t for Neil Young,” singer-guitarist Butler said.
His emotions didn’t stop him or the band of eight from bringing the crowd to their feet and moving to the beat as as it the evening got darker and cooler. One of their numbers was Young’s “Helpless,” played along side Young himself.
Los Invisibles featuring Carlos Santana treated the audience to a combination of jazz and salsa. Santana played a set that moved from Latin jazz to his popular tunes “Maria Maria” and “Smooth.” He paused in between songs to thank Pegi and Neil for having him and referred to them as “architects of compassion.” Dave Matthews joined Santana onstage to sing “Love of My Life” from his album Supernatural.
The Foo Fighters performed later in the evening. Band member Dave Grohl took a moment to talk about being invited to the benefit early in his career. He said never could’ve imagined being a family man and a rock star. He didn’t think you could be both. After meeting Young and his family, he realized he was wrong. Today, Grohl is married with children–and still very much a rock star.
The incomparable, 85-year-old Tony Bennett took to the stage and belted out notes that pleasantly surprised the crowd, and by the end of his set the crowd was screaming for more. He sang an emotional “Maybe This Time,” a swinging “I Got Rhythm,” and a crowd-pleasing, “I left My Heart in San Francisco.”
The Bridge School students and their families, as always, had the best seats in the house–on a raised platform at the back of the stage, with the performers regularly making a point to turn around and sing for them.
For the finale, Young sang with Pegi and all of his fellow musicians, but not before expressing his love and gratitude for his son Ben.
To see more of the Bridge School Benefit concert, watch videos below. The finale video in particular is is incredibly heartwarming — have tissues ready. Also, be sure to visit the school’s page at www.bridgeschool.org to learn more about the great things they do there.
Neil Young’s 25th Bridge School Benefit Finale