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BSB Concert Review: San Francisco Chronicle

Wearing a red flannel shirt over a second red flannel shirt, a scraggly Neil Youngbrought the 26th annual Bridge School Benefit Concertat Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheatre to a chilly close on Saturday with his usual all-star run through “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Only one thing was lacking – any discernible stars.

It was an anticlimactic end to an unusually anticlimactic concert that started some seven hours earlier with Young standing in the same spot. The venerated rocker and his wife, Pegi, typically have no problem drawing rock ‘n’ roll heavyweights to their annual shindig benefiting children with severe physical and speech impairments – from the Who and Paul McCartneyto Green Day and Radiohead. It’s a great cause and an honor to share the stage with the host.

But this year’s lineup felt lacking from the start. The most popular names on the bill could have made up an “I Love the ’90s” package show: Sarah McLachlan, the Flaming Lips, k.d. lang, Lucinda Williamsand whatever passes for Guns N’ Roses these days.

Even worse, they performed like it.

An unkempt Axl Rosearrived onstage late, hunched over a microphone stand and huffed his way through tunes that sounded vaguely familiar with a cast of misfits that looked vaguely like a band. His voice and blue jeans equally shredded, Rose forgot the lyrics to his group’s biggest hit, “Welcome to the Jungle,” and delivered an off-key version of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” that most likely had all the dogs within earshot of the concert howling in pain.

The Flaming Lips did their best to scale down their acid-infused psychedelic pop to the concert’s acoustic setting, even drafting the comedian Reggie Wattsfor live beat-boxing duties. But singer Wayne Coyne, in his unwashed gray suit, seemed unsettled. Determined to rile the crowd, he flapped his arms and beseeched, “Come on! Come on!”

Arriving onstage after the woefully mellow double shot of McLachlan and singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagnedidn’t do his band any favors. Nor did its surreal set, in which Coyne rambled incoherently, played “Taps” on a broken bugle and attempted a cover of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” with Watts reading the words off an iPhone.

Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, putting in a surprise guest appearance, provided some relief from the general incompetence of the night as he efficiently revived a couple of his band’s “Seinfeld”-era hits. “When I woke up this morning, this is the last thing I thought I would be doing,” he said, having been drafted to kill time before Guns N’ Roses’ late arrival.

This year it was the more contemporary acts that put in the most memorable sets. Jack White, backed by a pale all-female band resembling zombies, charged through a handful of blues-tinged songs from his solo album, “Blunderbuss,” while coyly flirting with the musicians. He also threw in a couple of White Stripes classics, “Hotel Yorba” and “We’re Going to Be Friends,” for good measure.

Foster the People, who had a huge hit last year with “Pumped Up Kicks” but skipped it altogether on Saturday, also managed to make the most of their brief time onstage, revamping their synthetic pop tunes with remarkable practicality.

Earlier in the day, Steve Martinand the Steep Canyon Rangers performed a passable set of bluegrass as the comedian recycled his old stage jokes (“People say to me, ‘Steve, why a music career? Why now?’ And I say, ‘Hey, you guys are my band.’ “); Lucinda Williams warbled tentatively; and k.d. lang, well, apparently she was there too.

The lackluster lineup left the weight of expectation on Young and his band, Crazy Horse, to close out the show with something substantial. Instead, the band merely revisited a bulk of its Outside Lands set from August – most of it new, unreleased or entirely forgotten material – only without the gnarled gusts of feedback to drive it along.

Toward the end of the night, Young performed a lovely rendition of “The Needle and the Damage Done,” which took on gut-wrenching intensity in light of the past-their-prime performers that came before. Its mournful note struck a tone – with even Rose and White bailing on the jam session, this was clearly a year to forget.

Aidin Vaziriis The San Francisco Chronicle’s pop music critic.

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With destinations still unnamed
It\'s hard to leave the traces
For someone to follow.

by -- Neil Young

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