The Bridge School Benefit concerts, put on every October from 1986 to 2016 by Pegi and Neil Young, were always open to some unlikely pairings. For every unsurprising addition to any year’s lineup, like CSNY, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, or Pearl Jam, there was always a host of performers that didn’t quite seem in line with Young’s signature style.
Over the years, diverse performers like Robin Williams, Sonic Youth, John Lee Hooker, Beck, Elvis Costello, Green Day, Phish, Eels, Billy Idol, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Norah Jones, Tenacious D, and Guns N’ Roses appeared to give the audience a little taste of everything. But one of the surprising frequent performers at the Bridge School Benefits was Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson.
On paper, it’s hard to tell whether Wilson and Young have a lot in common or nothing in common. They’re both mercurial geniuses with penchants for self-isolation and experimentation, but one is a sun-soaked purveyor of psychedelic surf rock and the other is a freak-folk jam-band hippie who chooses fuzz and grit over barbershop harmonies and sandy beaches.
But evidently Young had an affinity for Wilson and The Beach Boys, and first invited Wilson to play at the 1999 Benefit concert. The two established a good rapport, and so Wilson came back to perform at the 2006 and 2014 Benefits as well. It was during the 2014 show where Young became so taken with the classic California surf-rock sounds that he just had to jump on stage and sing ‘Surfin’ USA’ with Wilson and his band.
The cognitive dissonance of what is going on in this video is astounding. Young shares a microphone with Beach Boy Al Jardine, a frequent member of Wilson’s band, and is as giddy as a schoolboy. The smiles, the attempts at harmony singing, the dancing. If you see Neil Young as either the eccentric folky with an acoustic guitar or an ear-shattering purveyor of monolithic rock and roll, this performance is sure to break that image. Instead, Young instantly transforms into your dad at a family barbecue.
Young also doesn’t play guitar, making me realise that I’ve never actually seen Neil Young on stage without a guitar before. During the song’s solo, he decides to pick up a guitar stand and pretend to strum it like a guitar. It shows how he’s a little uncomfortable without his six-string, but is also having too much goofy fun to care.
It all adds up to a bizarre, but joyous, performance for a good cause. The California vibes are strong in this one.