Pumpkins sluggish at Bridge concert
Contra Costa Times
October 20, 1997
(Thanks to Josh Robbins for sending this to us)

Though the lineup was packed with familiar faces, the Bridge School Benefit offered a few surprises Saturday night. The biggest was the Smashing Pumpkins' decision to turn their closing set into an early Halloween party. An indelible image: the ghoulish Marilyn Manson planting a big, red wet one smack on the full moon of Billy Corgan's bald head. Manson and his guitarist, Twiggy Ramirez, were the only special guests at Saturday's show, and they were certainly a perverse choice for the lone cameo at the annual benefit for severely disabled children.

The shock rockers joined the band for a couple of tunes, including Manson's own "Beautiful People." The songs were sufficiently creepy, as was the camaraderie among the musicians. Manson, resplendent in a silver lamé dress, shaggy brown coat and cowboy hat, towered above the seated Corgan, and he leaned over to smooch and cuddle the Pumpkins frontman several times. Ramirez, sporting a beehive wig, cozied up beside bassist D'arcy.

For all their Alice Cooper campiness, Manson and his mate did pump some energy into what was shaping up to be a lackluster set by the Pumpkins. This was another surprise: When the band played the Cow Palace last winter, they blew the place away. That concert was equal parts raw power and sheer beauty.

At Shoreline Amphitheatre, though, they often sounded sluggish and bored, which wasn't helped by a balky sound system that hummed along with the band throughout its 50-minute set. D'arcy even cribbed her bass lines from notes.

Among the dirges and songs of rage (even the normally triumphant "Tonight, Tonight" sounded funereal), the almost melody-free "X.Y.U." stood out for its pure demonic fury.

As might be expected of a crowd that had come for the H.O.R.D.E.-oriented jam bands that composed most of the evening's entertainment, many in the audience left during the Pumpkins' set. This despite some gentler moments, like a faithfully delicate "1979" and a show-closing rendition of "Muzzle."

It just goes to show you can never be quite sure what you're going to get when you turn out for Neil Young's annual bash to benefit the Peninsula's Bridge School. Even bands we've heard a million times -- and the Mountain View show was chock full of them -- can sound quite different when forced to play acoustically, the house rule of the Bridge shows.

This can make for some pleasant surprises. The omnipresent Blues Traveler, whose endless electric jams get old fast, profited from being unplugged. It's harder to noodle with acoustic instruments, and the enforced discipline made for shorter, more focused renditions of old and new material, from "But Anyway" and "Run-Around" to "Canadian Rose." Freed from having to carry the weight of epic jams, the tunes bounced around like the bright little ditties they are.

And forty minutes was just enough of the band, whose marathon shows seem more exhausting to the audience than to the players (though John Popper and his harmonica made guest appearances throughout the evening, sitting in with Metallica, Neil Young and the Dave Matthews Band).

Another surprise was Alanis Morrissette, who came across as a Lilith-ready folk singer during her stripped-down set. The odd banshee wails and hiccups that made her breakthrough album "Jagged Little Pill" both distinctive and gimmicky were hardly in evidence Saturday night.

Though she's been dismissed by many as a major-label studio creation, she showed that she possesses a clear, strong voice. Her singing was delicate and tasteful, and sometimes quite lovely. Since several of her selections were from her not-yet released follow-up to "Pill," it's possible she's aiming to be more than just an alterna-fury.

Less satisfying were sets by Lou Reed and Metallica. When you're a legend whose every sneeze is hailed as a sign of genius, you don't have much incentive to put a lot of energy into your performance, and Reed didn't.

Energy, of course, is antithetical to Reed's cool, New York hipster persona in any case. But his flat monotone seemed especially affectless Saturday, with few exceptions. But Reed's graceful melodies still stand up, and he and his three-man band weren't afraid to stretch a bit, playing "Vicious" as a blues, and turning out a few numbers that were positively folky.

The boys in Metallica sounded rusty, having just put the finishing touches on their new album, "Reload." The band's usually razor-sharp ensemble playing was somewhat sloppy, and their effortless-sounding electric jams seemed labored when translated to acoustic axes.

Frontman James Hetfield kept a lyric sheet by his side throughout the set. When he couldn't remember how one song ended, he brought it to an abrupt close, much to the amusement of his bandmates. All four members seemed good-humored and relaxed throughout their performance, as though resigned to the fact that an acoustic set by the quintessential plugged-in heavy metal band was going to be odd no matter what. They were at their best playing power ballads that leant themselves to acoustic treatment, like "Nothing Else Matters."

The Dave Matthews Band, a mostly acoustic group in any case, was least affected by instrument constraints. The band's full, rich sound was as flawless as usual, nearly identical to its performances on "Crash," from which it drew its set.

In fact, it was a little too studio perfect. The band's omnipop sound, which blends jazz, folk, classical and world music, is so glossy and seamless that after a few listens it tends to become aural wallpaper. For once John Popper's guest contributions were welcome, during a jam with violinist Boyd Tinsley that brought some new fire to "Tripping Billies."

No matter how many times one hears Neil Young, on the other hand, he always sounds fresh. That's quite a feat for a guy whose music is also as old and comfortable as a pair of beaten-up boots.

Sounding particularly melancholy and more deep-throated than usual, he ran through a half-hour set that dipped into his vast back catalogue without relying on any notes or lyric sheets. He was equally at home on his guitar, harmonica and even a gothic church organ, all of which he used to make mournfully lovely music. By the time he plunked out a delicate and lonesome "After the Gold Rush" on a battered old upright piano, there was no doubt that this was, in every sense, Neil Young's show.

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