Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Buffalo Springfield Again - Bridge Benefit 10/24/10

In my first post of this blog, I bemoaned passing up the chance to see the Buffalo Springfield at our local high school (Palo Alto's Cubberley) in April, 1967. Forty three and a half years and a couple of aborted reunion attempts later, the three surviving members of the group united for a couple of shows at Shoreline Amphitheatre, a scant two miles from the site of the concert I missed back in 1967, so I determined not to miss them this time. Forgive my delving briefly into the present, but those who have expected this to be a purely chronological blog have had their expectations dashed already.

Shoreline Amphitheatre is the south bay version of the large outdoor concert shed, built by Bill Graham and his associates back in the late 1980s. It allowed Graham to stage his own large scale concerts during the spring through fall months, and had its own distinctly Northern California stamp, down to resembling a Grateful Deadish skull when viewed from the air.

The occasion was the twenty fourth annual benefit for the Hillsborough, CA Bridge School for children with severe physical and/or speech impairments hosted by Neil Young and his wife Pegi, who is on the school’s board. As is always the case, the two shows were each daylong events featuring a smorgasbord of rock, pop, and country acts, all playing acoustic instruments. For scheduling reasons, I was only able to attend the Sunday show, but it also turned out to have the more interesting lineup, at least to me.

Following a longstanding tradition, Neil opened the show with the same two songs, “Sugar Mountain” and “Comes a Time” that he always seems to pull out to get things underway. First up were two relatively young bands, Grizzly Bear and Modest Mouse (17 years and counting, so not so young, I guess). Both were interesting – the Grizzlies had the northwest Pendleton look down pat and some rich, throaty vocal harmonies. Modest Mouse seemed to bend over backwards to be eclectic and quirky, but the punky demeanor of lead singer Isaac Brock (the guy sitting next to me said “He seems like an Angry Mouse!”) was a stark contrast to the group’s densely layered horn, string, and percussion textures.

Kris Kristofferson was slated to appear with Merle Haggard, but Haggard had to cancel for medical reasons, so Kristofferson delivered a short, somewhat rusty set of his most familiar tunes, closing with the possibly appropriate “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

The longest stretch of the show was given over to T. Bone Burnett’s Speaking Clock Revue, which has featured a different lineup of artists that have been produced by Burnett during its ongoing national tour. It was a somewhat stripped down revue for the Bridge show, with Elvis Costello, Jeff Bridges, Neko Case, Ralph Stanley, and the piano duo of Leon Russell and Elton John taking successive turns at center stage. High points were the short, rocking set by Costello and the considerably longer one by Russell and John, which featured the bulk of the material from their just released joint album, the Union. Jeff Bridges was a crowd pleaser as he sang two songs from Crazy Heart, including a winning version of “Fallin’ and Flyin’” with Burnett and Costello adding harmonies at a shared microphone.

Through numerous previous Bridge Benefit appearances, Pearl Jam has figured out how to convey the energy of their rock performances using acoustic instruments. Eddie Vedder’s powerfully craggy voice helps a lot, and the group drew on a seemingly unlikely string section for some added firepower that worked better than one would expect. Young joined the band for a powerful version of his “Walk With Me” from his recently released album, Le Noise.”

Six hours of music and a couple of hours of rain into the show, the headliners finally made their appearance. Reunions between Stills and Young have been fairly commonplace over the years, but the two Bridge shows (they also played the previous evening) marked the first time the original three guitar lineup of Stills, Young, and Furay have shared a stage since 1968. The energy of the trio was palpable, with the ebullient Furay leading the charge as the group went right into the original Springfield arrangement of “On the Way Home,” replete with its introductory round of “oo-ooh-ooh’s.” In what was obviously a well rehearsed set, the trio, augmented by Young’s regular bassist Rick Rosas and Stills’ preferred drummer Joe Vitale, proceeded to reprise ten of their most familiar tunes, all reasonably faithful to the arrangements on the original recorded versions, with the exception that the electric guitars were replaced by the trio’s acoustic instruments.

All three musicians looked and sounded great, especially a slimmed down Stills, and Young broke out a fringed leather jacket as another nod to the good old days. The unplugged format precluded some of the sweet country licks on tunes like “Go and Say Goodbye” and the blazing guitar interplay on “Bluebird” that is evident on the few live recordings of the group in their heyday. Stills and, particularly, Young have maintained the highest profiles since the group disbanded, it was really Furay, taking the bulk of the lead vocals and bouncing around at center stage with a huge grin on his face, that was the secret ingredient that made this feel like a genuine Springfield reunion. Given that both members of the band’s original rhythm section, drummer Dewey Palmer and bassist Bruce Palmer, passed away recently, this is as close to a reunion as we will ever see.

Considering Furay’s full time gig as a pastor in a Colorado church and Young’s mercurial temperament, it remains to be seen whether this new Springfield chapter will extend beyond the Bridge concerts. Regardless of any future plans, it was a true delight to see the three singers and songwriters of the group come together one more time and to succeed so well in rekindling their old magic.

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