The woman behind me on the hillside is in her late ’50s and gorgeous in a way that tells me she must’ve caused a few riots when she was 22. The guy with her is about the same age, rugged in the way of a guy who might’ve started one of those riots. I saw in this handsome couple the hippies as grandparents. And about 50 feet over to the right are their grandchildren, who lustily and drunkenly know the words to every Dashboard Confessional song.
I noticed the same thing last fall when the Rolling Stones were on tour: People my mom’s age taking their grandkids to see legends before they die. That time, though, was at a rainy Pac Bell Park in downtown San Francisco. A Stones crowd is bound to be wound a bit too tight (the guy next to me almost started a fight over nothing) — just not the place where you expect a Summer of Love vibe.
Last night, though, we were in Mountain View at a place called the Shoreline Amphitheatre at a benefit concert Neil Young organizes for the Bridge School, which uses technology to open up new vistas for disabled children. Exactly the kind of place you’d expect the Woodstock Generation and its grandkids to show up.
It’s my first time at the Shoreline so you’ll have to suffer my rookie observations: It’s a huge outdoor concert venue with about 6,500 reserved seats up front and room for another 15,000 on the steep hillside behind them. Here the Grassy Knoll represents the cheap seats, and it’s an amazing bargain, considering the band lineup: Dashboard Confessional, Wilco, Counting Crows, the Indigo Girls, Incubus, Pearl Jam, Willie Nelson and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. All great bands in their own ways. And the proceeds help furnish abilities to disabled kids.
The Air of Goodness pervading the place takes a bit of the edge off the proceedings. As does the pair of overpriced, watered-down mixed drinks I’ve consumed with the idea of staying out of the line for the portapotty (better to buy liquor than rent beer, I figure). One part of me is saying, this’d be a lot more fun if I were a lot more drunk, but there’s the issue of the hillside — getting up and down it, threading one’s way through a maze of blankets and people occupying them. I decide sobriety is the better part of balance and cut myself off, but many intrepid youngsters are braver (and tipsier) than I.
Young drunk people navigating the crowd provide plenty of entertainment — especially after sundown. At one point about two hours past dusk, I felt a hand on my shoulder: it was a pretty, dark-haired woman, about 20 or so, whose first words to me and the folks nearby are, "this is SO fucked, I don’t know where my people are." She wanders off, shakily. I still wonder if she found her people. Then there are the people using cellphones like air-traffic controllers. A woman in front of me is offering step-by-step directions to the spot she’s saved for her late-arriving friends. Finally, a wave of recognition and friends are reunited. Seems like all anybody has to say about cellphones is how much they suck, but here’s one indisputable checkmark in their plus column: as long as your batteries last you can find your friends in the darkened mass of a rock concert.
Oh, yeah, there was a concert. One of the requirements of the Bridge Benefit is that everybody plays acoustic guitars. I assume this is because regular rock with its obscene volume and cutting power chords is unhealthy for the school’s students, who spend the entire concert behind the bands, facing the crowd. This is a bit creepy in its own right — all these innocent children in such proximity to rock musicians. I suppose they tell the kids, "all those people are cheering for you"; in any case they look like they’re enjoying themselves. The music is a whole evening of MTV Unplugged, with all that implies. Lots of power ballads. In fact, so many that after about three bands I would’ve given anything for a cover of "Shock Treatment" or "God Save the Queen." Or any song with somebody playing a Stratocaster in it.
I know, get on with it. So, here are highlights of the bands, in the order they played (this is all from memory so I apologize to anybody who took notes and may have a better grasp of the facts):
Neil Young: He opens the show with Sugar Mountain. This is my first time seeing Neil Live and suddenly I’m overcome with emotion … maybe some longing to be back in the backseat of somebody’s 1977 Monte Carlo, getting stoned and listening to "Rust Never Sleeps" too many times to count. It’s Neil being Neil, and everybody approves. He plays maybe three songs and turns the show over to the rest of the cast.
Dashboard Confessional: These guys play a form of alternative rock many people like to call "emo." What it means is, a kind of rock that allows love songs and musing on topics other than youthful rage and lust. The band plays well, the songs are fine. Not bad but not wonderful either. . Lasting memory: Lead singer tells the crowd, "I’m so proud to be here because I used to be a teacher for disabled children." And I’m thinking, his guy has his priorities in order: assist helpless children in making them less helpless, or become the leader of a rock ‘n’ roll band. What sane person would choose differently?
Wilco: I have most of their albums, and I know people who are friends of the lead singer. In fact, I know so much about Wilco that the urge to hear live performances of songs I know by heart is overcome by my urge to acquire that second drink. So I spend half their set in line. I hear enough to wonder why Wilco is so great and yet deprived of the rich rewards they deserve. It could be that they’re just not tight in concert — the music sounds loose and frayed, which can be really cool in your headphones or at a nightclub, but doesn’t translate as well in front of a huge crowd like this, at least in comparison to the bands to come.
Counting Crows: Their lead singer has hair like the homicidal lunatic who’s always trying to kill Bart Simpson, except Sideshow Bob is more entertaining. The band is as tight as Wilco is loose, and the contrast is startling enough to make me wonder if there is a meritocracy in Rock ‘n’ Roll, that the most famous bands get that way because they have the best musicians. The problem is, the band plays wonderfully in the service of painfully forgettable songs and a painfully annoying lead singer. When I hear him say, "We’ve got one more song to go," I swear I hear some guy behind me say, "oh, Shit!" At least there was one laugh in the Crows’ set.
Indigo Girls: The first fantastic performance of the evening. The Girls are a duo, two women with two guitars. Unlike the other bands who had to squeeze their sets into an acoustic box, the Girls where on home turf in a all-acoustic show and the difference was amazing. See, they play like two people out to prove there are a million ways two guitars and two voices, set to words, can sound good. With way too many singer-songwriters, all the work goes into voices and lyrics, and the guitar playing is an afterthought. Not with the Indigo Girls: Both played complex, intricate stuff that would’ve impressed the most skeptical headbanging lead guitarist. And their harmonies were wonderful. I’m going to have to see a couple more of their shows before they win me over completely, but for now I can say: it’s not quite rock ‘n’ roll, but their live show rocks. The only flat spot: a cameo by David Crosby, who can’t seem to harmonize with the Girls. It’s an act of charity that embarrasses donor and recipient alike.
Incubus: The only band that felt really out of place playing acoustic music. They’re more of a thrash-rap-metal band. In keeping with the good-deeds-done-dirt cheap theme of the night, they played melodic, slightly groovy stuff that must’ve irked their hardcore fans to no end. The turntablist probably had his sleepiest show in months. I could sense a bulldog straining against its leash.
Pearl Jam: Eddie Vedder comes on stage, sits down and opens with "Masters of War," the classic Dylan anti-war screed. See, they had a big antiwar protest in San Francisco yesterday, so Eddie and his bandmates opted to localize their set. Seeing Vedder’s face on the giant screen makes me think: "now that is why we have rock stars," to give us those stick-it-to-the-man moments we crave. PJ also plays a ripping cover of Johnny Cash’s "Twenty Five Minutes to Go," a song about a guy at the gallows who’s about to get his neck stretched. Like Incubus, PJ is a rock band screaming for an honest A-minor bar chord, but unlike Incubus, they have the Sinatra of our era for a lead singer, which allows them indulge in a bit of pure schmaltz that only the great performers can pull off. Near the end of their set, Vedder introduces a Bridge School alumna who’s in her third year at Cal-Berkeley. The camera closes in on her smiling, almost ecstatic face. See, Eddie’s going to play her favorite song, "Last Kiss," that cover PJ had on the radio a few years back. Back then, it was a bit grating, but in this setting it’s positively charming. When it’s over, Vedder goes over and gives her a little kiss on the cheek. As the folks from MasterCard would say: priceless.
Willie Nelson: Willie plays like he’s got a plane to catch and doesn’t do anything memorable. We expect more from a legend, which makes it a bit of a letdown when he is anything less than amazing. The other thing I wanted to scream, "For God’s sake, Willie, you can afford a new guitar." That broken-down thing he plays used to be cute, now it seems ridiculous.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Crosby looked irrelevant on stage aside the hard-driving, polished professionalism of the Indigo Girls, but he gets along fine in the company of his old cronies. Graham Nash gets this absurd grimace on his face when emoting his lines. Stephen Stills has almost lost that trademark voice of his. Neil is still Neil. However: Tonight the harmonies are perfect, the songs tight, the musicianship solid, and the guys show they’re not ready to be mummified just yet. One of the first songs has to be "Deja Vu," because, yeah, we’ve all been here before. Then the high guitar note that hints "For What it’s Worth" is up next. "There’s something happening here…" and yeah, it’s not exactly clear. Because there are, again, men with guns over there telling us we’ve got to beware. A song played so many times it’s become a cliché, but tonight, it works, maybe in a way it hasn’t worked since the fall of Saigon. They close with "Teach your Children" and I’m overcome with emotion for the second time tonight. The feelings come back even when I write about it. Maybe because at this age there’s no way to deny: I’m becoming more and more like them, the Dinosaurs of Rock, and less and less like the youngsters of Dashboard Confessional.
On the way out, we’re discussing the CSNY set … I’m noting how their voices seem to have aged at the same rate, so even though they can’t hit the notes they did before, they still sound good together. Next to us is a young guy with the look of somebody about to ask us for money for bus fare. He’s fairly itching to join the conversation and finally he blurts it out: He’s 26 years old so he can’t claim to know all he needs to know, but tonight’s is the best of the nine CSNY shows he’s seen. Somehow that seemed to sum up the whole thing.