Review: Tom Waits elevates Bridge School Benefit

As always, the 21st annual Bridge School Benefit over the weekend in Mountain View was a feel-good time for all.

Neil and Pegi Young's star-packed event routinely has appeal in that it's more about the beneficiaries — kids with severe learning disabilities who are Bridge School students — than it is about rock-star posturing.

Despite the fact that some 20,000 attend the show at the Shoreline Ampitheatre, there's something nicely intimate about big-time pop musicians doing acoustic sets for a good cause.

Yet there was little in the way of top-40 type sounds Saturday night at the first of two weekend concerts. Not sporting a mainstream headliner such as Paul McCartney or Dave Matthews, the show's eclectic lineup did serve up a few moments of sheer bliss: a rare appearance by Tom Waits (with the Kronos Quartet) and the pioneer classic sound of Jerry Lee Lewis.

The show opened with the adorable Regina Spektor at the piano. She was a charmer, sounding great on “Fidelity” and other sweetly melancholy tunes.

Twins Tegan and Sara, making their third appearance at the event, had similar indie appeal, interjecting amusing banter between their songs, which included “Back in Your Head and “Like O, Like H.”

Under-the-radar rockers My Morning Jacket from Louisville, Ky., with frontman Jim James clearly at the helm, followed in a good set featuring “What a Wonderful Man” and “Anytime.”

Perhaps the most popular performer in the lineup, John Mayer, came next, presenting a short set with one of the few hits of the night: “Waiting On the World to Change.” His cover of Tom Petty's “Free Fallin'” was a nice surprise.

The show's most unusual act, Tom Waits and the Kronos Quartet, was sublime from start to finish. It's probably fair to say that Mayer and Waits don't necessarily have the same fan base, but fans of the reclusive Waits were served up a huge treat of spellbinding, gorgeous songs played by new music's acclaiimed Kronos Quartet — the perfect complement to Waits' distinctive sandpaper vocals. Tunes included “Down in the Hole,” “Cold, Cold Ground,” “Day After Tomorrow” and “The Part You Throw Away.”

Host Neil Young's long set featured, as he said himself, songs that many in the crowd wouldn't know, including “Spirit Road” and “The Believer” from his new CD “Chrome Dreams II.”

Seventy-two-year-old Lewis, amazingly pounding on the piano, revved up the crowd with classics, including a Hank Williams cover and his own monster hits “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On.”

Headliners Metallica closed the show, in the metal band's second Bridge appearance. The tunes didn't pack much of a punch within the confines of the acoustic format, and the set list included oddities and covers, such as Rare Earth's “I Just Want to Celebrate,” Nazareth's “Please Don't Judas Me” and Garbage's “Only Happy When it Rains.”

Rumors that Bruce Springsteen, who just finished a two-night gig in Oakland, might surface were unfounded, leaving Bridge School 2007 as a non-blockbuster year with a some truly memorable performances.

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