It’s Bridge School Season

It’s hard to believe that nearly 21 years have gone by since I sat in my parents’ home office, squinting at a bulky CRT monitor that was stuttering through grainy video of Pearl Jam playing live at the Bridge School Benefit—an annual charity event hosted by Neil Young at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California.

The Bridge School Benefit shows were always acoustic performances that featured an eclectic lineup of eight-ish different artists, so you’d have the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and R.E.M. performing alongside Norah Jones, Dave Matthews, or Fleet Foxes, with each doing a 30-40 minute set.

I first learned about the existence of the Bridge School events after stumbling across online forums dedicated to trading recordings of live shows via a method called B&P, which stood for “blanks and postage.” Back then you could mail a padded envelope, return postage, and your blank cassettes (and later, CDs) to a total stranger who would would copy their version of live shows on to your media before mailing the envelope back to you. It was magical!

As I started reading about the best shows to track down with my hard-earned money from working the photo counter at the local Walgreens, I heard about these all-acoustic Bridge School Benefit concerts, which seemed to have this revered, legendary status amongst the online Pearl Jam community. I eventually acquired the ‘92, ‘94, and ‘96 shows and could immediately tell why. Back then, it was extremely rare to have the band doing anything acoustic, so these 40-minute sets were a real departure from the normal shows and something truly special where they pulled out rarities, reworked crowd favorites, and even debuted new cover songs. In other words, these shows were unlike anything else you could track down.

By the time 1999 rolled around, we were starting to be able to download entire shows from Napster or from FTP servers run by clever college students taking advantage of their awesome university bandwidth, so the whole B&P community faded away. I know I personally ran up some ridiculous phone bills for my parents by downloading MP3s of entire concerts overnight, all thanks to some software that would monitor your downloads and reestablish the dial-up modem connection if there was a disruption.

That year the Bridge School Benefit team advertised a portion of the 1999 show would be livestreamed1 online, for the first time ever. When the day came around I set up shop by reserving the phone line in our house, spent the afternoon making sure I had the right combination of audio/video plugins installed (probably something in RealPlayer, right?), and chatted with some childhood friends from across town over AOL Instant Messenger while we all waited for the show to start.

The audio was choppy and low bitrate, the video was too grainy to see when it did come through (which was not often), but I got to see my favorite band perform an acoustic set live from across the country, and it was fantastic, even over dial-up. I’m pretty sure I was kicked off the phone line and sent to bed before The Who got to perform (being in Chicago, we were 2 hours ahead of the event’s time zone), but that evening cemented the legacy of the Bridge School Benefit shows for me and created a need to make it out there one day.2

The shows ran as a staple of the fall season in the Bay Area for nearly 30 years and unfortunately called it quits after the 2016 performances. So for the past few years when October rolls around, I pull out my long playlist of Pearl Jam Bridge School shows and make my family listen along, because, well—it’s Bridge School season, goddamnit! My kids don’t like the shows yet, but I’m convinced I can win them over with incessant repetition.

If you’d like to check out the shows yourself3, there’s a wonderful site that still appears to have each night available as a download and the Live Music Archive also has many of the shows available to stream. And if Pearl Jam just isn’t your thing, you can find Bridge School collection albums on Apple Music and Spotify that feature a mix of the different artists who have performed over the years.

  1. Back then—I shit you not—it was billed as a “cybercast.”
  2. I eventually did get to attend the Bridge School Benefit in person! After moving to San Francisco, we attended from 2010–2012 and those shows remain some of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve ever seen. As an incredible birthday surprise, my wife even flew out those same childhood friends who had watched the ‘99 stream from their own homes so we could all realize the dream together.
  3. I am so glad you asked for my recommendation! Both nights from 2001 are excellent and, of course, their final appearance in 2014 with Chris Cornell is a great listen. But I should also point you towards some older highlights like the 1994 cover of Daniel Johnston’s Walking the Cow and the famous “slow” versions of Corduroy and Porch from the 1996 shows.


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Hi there. My name is Tom Pacyk and this is my small home on the web. I love the intersection of design, technology, and communication, which is a combination that led me to a career in sales and marketing roles at places like Zoom and ServiceNow. They're a bit old now, but I also had the opportunity to publish a couple of books along the way.

Portland, Oregon is home for me, my wife Beth, and our three kids, but I'm actually a Midwestern transplant—I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and went to school at Purdue and Illinois. When I find some free time I'm probably going to concerts, rooting for the Portland Timbers, or working on my Sunshine Burn Photography project.