The Pied Piper of Rock

San Francisco Chronicle, 1995-10-30, by: Joel Selvin
Neil Young gathers stellar Bridge cast
Neil Young drew a remarkable intersection of lines at his ninth annual Bridge concert Saturday at the Shoreline Amphitheatre.

In the course of the five-hour concert, Emmylou Harris sang songs from the album of her career, Bruce Springsteen previewed his stark new Woody Guthrie- esque ballads from an upcoming album, and Hootie and the Blowfish took time off from recording their follow-up to the breakthrough album of the year to road test a couple of new songs in the acoustic configuration that is the order of the day. The annual show raises funds for the Bridge School, a school for children with severe communication handicaps.

A dark ghost haunted the occasion. Shannon Hoon, whose band Blind Melon was scheduled to appear on the bill, died last week in New Orleans of an apparent drug overdose (see related story on page D2). The death almost certainly was on Young's mind when he sang his ``The Needle and the Damage Done'' to open the concert.

But when Chrissie Hynde, appearing with an acoustic edition of her Pretenders augmented by a four-man string section, reprised the song later that evening, she drew the connection more specifically. ``This is for Shannon Hoon,'' she said. ``He was supposed to be here tonight, but he won't be here at all anymore.''

Hynde proved to be one of the evening's big hits. Her crystalline version of ``2000 Miles'' drew a standing ovation. She sang her seven-song set with uncommon confidence and poise, even abandoning her guitar and arching her voice into ``Kid,'' backed solely by the string quartet and a folk guitar.

If the strings represented an artistic departure for Hynde, Harris has started an entirely new career with the music she made with Daniel Lanois, producer of her spectacular new album, ``Wrecking Ball'' (Young wrote the title song). She has all but abandoned the Appalachian country stylings that have been her bread and butter for more than 20 years in favor of this delicate, deeply personal synthesis of gospel, folk, soul and Lanois' own peculiar brand of musical voodoo.

With bassist-drummer Darryl Johnson, the trio sampled some of the gems from ``Wrecking Ball,'' the fastest-selling new album of Harris' career, but halfway through they segued into a melange of soul and gospel songs in which Harris and Johnson shared lead vocals. Genre boundaries dissolved as the three raised their voices in pure song, Lanois tacking the melodies to the floor with his arcane guitar playing.

Springsteen gave the audience a preview of the acoustic tour he plans for sometime in the coming months in support of ``Ghost of Tom Joad,'' his folky solo album due to be released in two weeks. The title song made a sharp punctuation to the six songs he performed.

``There's a white riot going on in Congress,'' he said, ``that's going to make our country less safe for our kids, more divided. So I want to send this out to the Gingrich mob.'' The song finds a drifter looking among the homeless encampments for the spirit of the John Steinbeck hero and, ultimately, finding him. Springsteen has fashioned a gut-wrenching reminder of just how far this country has drifted from ideals it once held close.

He reworked such songs as ``Point Blank'' and ``This Hard Land'' into his Guthrie-esque presentation. ``Sinaloa Cowboys,'' another song from the new album, is a modern ballad of Mexican cowboys and the lost American dream. He tossed off a verse of ``I Don't Want Any More of This Army Life'' - the verse about the baseball game between the bedbugs and the roaches - in tribute to the World Series.

Hootie and the Blowfish vocalist Darius Rucker displayed becoming modesty, describing his reaction when he first saw the band's name on the concert program. ``It was like one of those `Sesame Street' things,'' he said. ``You know, which one of these don't belong here?'' But then, this band has a lot to be modest about.

In an acoustic setting, the band's carefully crafted lite pop lost a lot of impact, but the crowd responded enthusiastically to songs from its runaway best-selling album (6 million and still selling). The band also performed a highway ballad from country songsmiths Foster and Lloyd and a typical mid-tempo Hootie ballad headed for a new album under production in Marin County.

But, of course, leave it to Neil Young to provide the consistent underpinning and eventual catharsis for his own show. After his three-song opening set, Young wandered out unannounced to add, as he did on the recording, harmonica and harmonies to Emmylou Harris' ``Sweet Old World.'' He dragged Springsteen back for an encore -- ``Bruce says he doesn't have any more songs, so we'll do one of mine'' -- launching into a folk-style version of Young's ``Down by the River,'' Springsteen strumming guitar and pitching in on the choruses.

Young and his longtime collaborators, Crazy Horse, returned for five songs at the end of the night, ranging from the whimsical ``Pocahontas'' to a chilling ``Cortez the Killer'' with Young giving his acoustic guitar the kind of tortured string-bending he would an electric guitar. For the finale, he started ``Rockin' in the Free World'' as Springsteen grabbed a guitar and joined the band, while a gaggle of background vocalists gathered around microphones -- including Harris, Hynde and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, wherever he came from.

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