Photographer Erika Carrillo shares more than 15 years of imagery from Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit.

Photos by Erika Carrillo/Text by Charles Russo

Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters (and Nirvana fame) performing at the Bridge School Benefit in 2011, one of many times he has played the concert. (Photo by Erika Carrillo)

This final weekend in October will mark what would have been the 32nd year of the annual all-acoustic charity-based Bridge School Benefit Concert, regularly held by Neil and Pegi Young at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View. As we reported last year, the future of the school is bright, even as the funding strategies remain the perennial challenge.

On the more musical side of the equation, the fate of the concerts themselves remains uncertain, and far from final. For three decades now, the late October gathering at Shoreline in Mountain View has been an autumn tradition for peninsula residents, showcasing a world class array of performers in a very unique, and at times highly-unscripted, all-acoustic format. Looking back through the lineups of artists from year-to-year, they read as a who’s who of marquee musicians from the past quarter-century, featuring everyone from the most iconic (Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty ) to the buzzworthy (Modest Mouse, St. Vincent, The Flaming Lips) to the entirely unexpected (Marilyn Manson, Tony Bennett, Billy Idol).

(Clockwise from top left): Neil Young performing “Don’t Be Denied” with Norah Jones in 2016; the Dixie Chicks in 2015; Carlos Santana made a rare appearance in 2011; Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris performing “Love Hurts” in 2010. (Photos by Erika Carrillo)

If you attended a Bridge School concert, you likely saw something singularly special, far apart from the typical tour setlists and structured performances that replicate themselves in all of their “Hello Cleveland!” glory from venue to venue. Maybe you caught Radiohead’s Thom Yorke performing a stunning solo cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” or Tom Waits dropping in on the Kronos Quartet to stomp and howl through “God’s Away on Business.” Or perhaps you were fortunate enough to see David Bowie in prime form belting out a remarkable version of “Heroes.” With the Bridge School Benefit, these kinds of stories are as colorful as they are abundant.

In this regard, if you’re feeling like something is missing on the peninsula this weekend, you’re not alone. So The Six Fifty has put together a Bridge School special to fill the void. We not only have an update for you on the concert’s mission (and future status), but also a full photo gallery — courtesy of longtime Bridge School photographer Erika Carrillo — for you to reconnect with the concert and relive some old memories.

Annie Clark, AKA St. Vincent, performing at the Bridge School Benefit in 2015. (Photo by Erika Carrillo)

When Erika Carrillo says that she “pretty much grew up going to Bridge School,” it’s easy enough to not take her literally. Sure, as a born-and-raised peninsula resident, she probably caught the annual benefit concert a few times in her teens, maybe here and there in college. But when the 34 year-old says that her first show, which was the first show, was when she was just two years-old, it’s easy to tell that she truly has had a special long-view vantage point to take in the one-of-a-kind concert.

Carrillo attended the festival throughout her childhood, running around backstage with the other children whose families were tied to the concert, including the Young’s daughter Amber, who was a close friend and classmate. The concert was a unique sort of fun house for them to play and make mischief. One year they slipped funny notes back and forth with the Indigo Girls via their adjoining rooms, while another they got weirded-out by Wavy Gravy (long but not surprising story). As time went on, they all started picking up on the music.

(Clockwise from top left) Tom Waits in 2013; Gwen Stefani fronting No Doubt in 2009; Sheryl Crow solo acoustic in 2009. (Photos by Erika Carrillo)

While taking a photography course in high school at the age of 16, Carrillo inevitably had the idea to shoot the concert. So she personally asked Neil and Pegi for permission, got an easy-going “yes,” and then went on to document 16 years of the event.

Carrillo hit some small speed bumps in those early years, like when someone in her school dark room mistakenly switched the developer and the fixer: “my negatives came out completely blank,” she explains with some lingering frustration. While studying abroad in Costa Rica in 2005, she encountered an unsympathetic school administration who wouldn’t allow her to fly home on a long weekend for the festival. It stands out as the only year she has missed.

(Clockwise from top): Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam performing Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” with Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell in 2014; James Hetfield of Metallica in 2007; Roger Waters (left) with Neil Young performing “Forever Young” in 2016. (Photos by Erika Carrillo)

Of course, those were just hiccups in what was otherwise a front row seat for one the most talent-heavy events in all of music. So when asked to recall her favorite performances, Carrillo has to sift through a long list of memories, and unsurprisingly, her choices speak to the essence of what makes the Bridge School Concert so unique.

Fresh on her mind was last year’s performance by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters: “I had seen him perform The Wall at AT&T park, but seeing him up close doing all of those same songs acoustic just blew my mind.” She is also quick to cite Pearl Jam, a frequent participant over the years, as “always great.” In fact, one of Carrillo’s standout memories — and favorite photos — is when Pearl Jam’s singer Eddie Vedder brought out Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell to temporarily reform their Seattle super-group Temple of the Dog to belt out their grunge classic, “Hunger Strike” in one of those only-at-Bridge-School moments.

Paul McCartney (left) performing “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” with Neil Young in 2004. (Photo by Erika Carrillo)

Conversely, Carrillo struggles to cite many clunkers over the years. Sure, Metallica could be challenged with the acoustic format, but they always seemed to pull it together. The lone outlier? Axl Rose, who showed up late and in feeble form to lurch through Guns ‘n Roses classics in 2012. “He was terrible,” she recalls.

But the moment that really stands out for Carrillo is when she got to watch and then meet her favorite Beatle — none other than Sir Paul McCartney. “I grew up on the Beatles, so I was kind of in shock talking to him. I said that I was just taking pictures for school, and he said, ‘Well, we’re all students.’”

(Clockwise from top left): Neil Young (left) with Nils Lofgren performing “Believe” in 2015; Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine in 2014; the big finale 2013. (Photos by Erika Carrillo)

Erika Carrillo’s concert imagery is captured in her book, Annual Bridge School Benefit Concert Photographs: 2000–2013. A portion of the proceeds from each copy sold go back to the Bridge School program. Her work can also be seen on her Facebook page.

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