Neil Young’s annual Bridge School Benefit had become a rite of passage by 1998. The benefit concert had been welcoming stars to perform stripped back versions of their most famous songs since the last decade and now the queue to get on stage was always a long one.
Equally by 1998, R.E.M. had placed themselves firmly in the middle of the public consciousness and had started to assert themselves in the mainstream as the alt-rock du jour. Naturally, when posed with who would perform at 1998’s event, there was one band who jumped to mind.
The two stars, R.E.M. and Neil Young are serial collaborators and so it was no surprise that when Michael Stipe and the rest of the band did take the stage on October 18th, 1998, they were joined by Young for an exchange of covers. Young was helped by R.E.M. on his 1974 song, ‘Ambulance Blues’ banjo and all, while Young joined the band for a performance of Stipe’s “particular favourite” R.E.M. track ‘Country Feedback’.
Coming from the 1991 album Out of Time, the track has often been cited as Stipe’s favourite and its conception is beautiful. Peter Buck and Bill Berry were just wasting time when they decided to add a little more bones to a chord progression Buck had been working on. The duo took on the varying roles of the group between them.
As Mike Mills arrived at the studio they laid down the organ part. With Stipe’s arrival the next day, the group began to think about the lyric take. Stipe went into the studio with a few rough notes but otherwise, his semi-improvised lyrics just came from the heart and on to the record in one take. Berry said after the take, “You know what, guys? I think this song is finished. We don’t need to re-record this one.”
In 1998, with a few changes to the R.E.M. line-up in mind, Neil Young jumps on to the stage ready to let it all go. What happens is that a song which lasts on record for around four minutes is stretched to over nine minutes. Young gets lost in the beauty of the track. “It’s a love song, but it’s certainly from the uglier side,” Stipe has said. “It’s pretty much about having given up on a relationship.”
It was a performance from Young, with only his guitar in hand and not a note uttered or sang on the song, that was completely captivating. It even left Stipe rendered a pure fan as he sat down on the stage and watched the iconic Young with open-mouthed joy. Emboldened by such an empirical showing, Stipe does his best to match Young and sings from the very pits of his soul, even breaking on notes he gave too much to.
You can watch R.E.M.’s full performance at the Bridge School Benefit below but we’d suggest that it doesn’t get better than when Neil Young joined them to perform ‘Country Feedback’.