There were grumblings once again this year about how the Bridge School Benefit lineup wasn't that strong. Not that strong? The 21st annual Bridge, which went down Saturday and Sunday at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, featured two of pop music's greatest songwriters (Tom Waits and event founder Neil Young), one of the founding fathers of rock 'n' roll (Jerry Lee Lewis) and arguably the most important metal band of all time (Metallica).
Toss in pop heartthrob John Mayer, indie darlings Tegan and Sara, vocalist Regina Spektor and alt-country rockers My Morning Jacket and you have a lineup that, by any measure, qualifies as strong.
Like I said, Bay Area music fans are spoiled. But that's what happens when we get used to seeing such names as Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Phish, R.E.M., Sheryl Crow, David Bowie and Dave Matthews in Bridge lineups over the years.
On Saturday night, nearly 20,000 fans turned out at Shoreline for the annual fundraiser, which supports the Hillsborough school for students with severe learning disabilities, and were rewarded with many fine moments. There weren't enough of those to rank this concert among the Bridge's best -- it won't likely be remembered as fondly as, say, 1988, with Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia, or 1998, with Phish and R.E.M., or 2004, with Paul McCartney.
That assessment would have changed, undoubtedly, if the one big rumor swirling about this year's Bridge had turned out to
The seven-hour-plus, mostly acoustic event got under way, as always, with a few lesser-known acts. In this case, fans were greeted by Spektor, twin sisters Tegan and Sara Quin and My Morning Jacket. And, as usual, these sets were ignored by many attendees. My Morning Jacket -- a last-minute filler for the all-star trio of Eddie Vedder, Flea and Jack Irons, which canceled due to a private family matter -- did the best of the lot in trying to entice fans to stay in their seats.
The party really got going once Mayer took the stage. The 30-year-old pop idol is known for his bluesy chops on the electric guitar. Unplug his instrument, however, and he basically sounds just like Jack Johnson, which isn't a bad thing. For many, Mayer was the event's biggest drawing card. Those people had to be disappointed that Mayer only performed a short five-song set, highlighted by a fine cover of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'."
The rest of us, however, were ready to see the crooner finish so we could get to the good stuff.
That's exactly what we got once Waits took the stage with the modern instrumental combo Kronos Quartet. It wasn't the first time this collaboration occurred -- it also happened in 2003, during a benefit concert in New York City for actor Richard Gere's Healing the Divide foundation -- yet it felt like we were witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. The ensemble produced spine-chilling versions of some of Waits' finest compositions, including "Way Down in the Hole" and "God's Away on Business."
Young, our host for the evening, hit the stage after Waits and delivered one of his least accessible sets in Bridge history. As the man himself put it, "I'm not doing any songs you know, probably." Instead, he delved into the newly released album "Chrome Dreams II," with "The Way" and "Spirit Road," and into his back catalog for lesser-known cuts, such as "Winterlong."
If the crowd didn't know those songs, they certainly could sing along to what Lewis had in store for them. The 72-year-old rock pioneer, who also appeared at the 2005 Bridge, had the crowd shimmying to great renditions of such golden oldies as "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire."
Metallica received, and deserved, the headlining spot. What the quartet did with it, though, was questionable. The group, a veteran of the '97 Bridge, sounded great in the semi-unplugged setting, but it neglected the hits in favor of strange covers, such as Garbage's "Only Happy When It Rains." That meant those hoping to hear, say, an acoustic version of "Enter Sandman" went home disappointed.
Also, those wanting to see the usual all-star closer -- and perhaps watch Mayer try to trade licks with a real ax-man like Metallica's Kirk Hammett -- also went home unfulfilled. That was a disappointment, but not enough of one to put an overall damper on what was once again a mighty enjoyable Bridge School Benefit.
Reach Jim Harrington at email@example.com.