Neil Young and an All Star Roster Raise Awareness for Autism

Light Up The Blues
Hollywood Pantages Theater

What’s not to love about an all-star rock show for charity? Well, there must be something, as Stephen Stills grumbled (in a manner befitting Fred Sanford) throughout the evening. Along with his wife, Kristen, Stills has hosted the Light Up The Blues concert four times. This time around, Neil Young, Nikka Costa, Jakob Dylan, The War On Drugs and other musical performers joined emcee Jack Black and celebrity guests in creating a show that certainly satisfied the packed house of the historic Hollywood Pantages Theatre.

Timed to somewhat coincide with the annual international event Light It Up Blue, on April 2, wherein tens of thousands of buildings and monuments around the world are illuminated with blue lighting to raise awareness for autism, Light Up The Blues stylishly raises funds for Autism Speaks. Prior to the concert, and during a 20-minute intermission, the opulent lobby of the theatre was filled with smartly-dressed philanthropists and music lovers, who caroused and hovered around various fundraising areas — including silent auction stations featuring Roland musical products signed by the evening’s performers.

Jack Black began the proceedings with Jim Morrison’s iconic words from “Celebration of the Lizard.” After asking, “Is everybody in?” Black announced that he was Jim Morrison, just as the audience wanted him: shorter, fatter, and older. Black was the life of the party throughout the evening. While various celebrities (including Christina Applegate, Judd Apatow, Andy Dick, and Matt Walsh) introduced some of the musical acts, these introductions / performances were bridged by Black’s zany antics and stylized a capella snippets of various songs like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and The Cars’ “Just What I Needed.” During a couple of the telethon-like fundraising breaks in the entertainment, Black’s humor kept everyone’s spirits high. This was especially true as he took on the role of an auctioneer — announcing that two harmonicas were signed by Neil Young and had been played by him, thus he revealed, “Not only do they have Neil Young’s energy, but they also have his DNA!”

Prior to introducing her childhood friend, Chris Stills, Christina Applegate accurately predicted that apart from the evening’s performances by many great and popular performers, some of the most memorable performances would be given by people on the autism spectrum. The performances of Nikki Nik, Soulshocka, and Kyle Cousins were prefaced by testimonials about how each of these autism spectrum performers had risen above their various challenges in order to find personal and commercial victories through music; furthermore, their performances were not simply token nods facilitated by the programmers. Each artist gave an impressive performance within their given genre (pop, rap, and rock, respectively). Additionally, a very moving video was screened, which showcased operatic singer Spencer Harte’s 2015 performance at Light Up The Blues and told her inspiring story, with an emphasis on her mother’s discovery that her daughter had autism and how music and The Miracle Project program enabled Harte to develop her voice. Programs for non-musically inclined people with developmental disabilities were also showcased by short film clips, such as the Spero Vineyards, which offers vocational training.

The musical performances began after Stephen Stills complained about his microphone [which worked fine — perhaps it was his monitor that was faulty]. Stills performed a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Girl of the North Country.” Following this, Dylan’s son, Jakob Dylan took the stage, and his band performed one song with Stills before Stills’ sulking got the better of him and he wandered off. Dylan called after him, “Steve, you can stay if you want to…” Dylan’s brief set was very good and featured a performance of “One Headlight,” which was written during his days with The Wallflowers. Stills’ son Chris performed a great set, which featured a guest vocal appearance by Venus and the Moon (Rain Phoenix and Frally Hynes) on a new song entitled “Lonely Nights.”

Later in the show, after The War On Drugs performed a solid set, Black provided the band with kudos and a charming comment on their name. He essentially said that since the War on Drugs was a failing movement — yet, the band was so good — they should change their name to something more like “Mindblowers United.” Nikka Costa brought the energy of the theatre up another notch when her R&B band tore into a brief set featuring “Can’t Please Everybody.” Following this, Stephen Stills returned to the stage with the great backing band The Rides (featuring guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd and keyboardist Barry Goldberg) for a few songs before Neil took over the show.

Neil Young’s mini concert was heralded by one third of the audience holding up their cell phones to capture their own little piece of the legendary artist as he walked onstage with an acoustic guitar and his harmonica holder. He began with “Heart of Gold,” one of his many signature tunes, before proceeding into the more obscure fan favorite “Thrasher.” After singing the first line of the final verse of the song (“But me, I’m not stopping there,”), Young stopped singing while he cycled through the verse’s chord progression with increased intensity — only to sing the line again with emphasis. While this emphatic reiteration could have been read as his commitment to his various musical and philanthropic interests, he clarified afterwards, “I almost forgot the song for a second. Could have been a career ender!” The crowd loved it.

He then continued the acoustic set with “Out On The Weekend,” before being joined onstage by Chris Stills and Stephen Stills, who cursed at the placement of his microphone stand before dragging it across the stage. The trio performed “Human Highway,” and then traded their acoustic instruments for electric guitars and were joined by The Rides for great performances of Buffalo Springfield songs “Mr. Soul” and “For What It Is Worth.” For the grand finale, Young invited all of the performers and presenters to join the band onstage for an epic performance of “Rockin’ In The Free World.”

Though Mr. Stills was noticeably peeved by various logistical aspects of the show, his curmudgeonliness inadvertently added to an exceedingly well-rounded evening of entertainment [to say nothing of the fact that he suffered for a good cause]. The moving appeals of Autism Speaks officers Matt Asner (Director of Corporate Development) and Angela Geiger (President / CEO) grounded the entertainment with requests for charitable contributions, which were provided with entertaining flourishes led by Black. But it was the impressive range of musicians, led by Neil Young and his DNA, which ultimately wound up raising tens of thousands of dollars in donations, to benefit Autism Speaks, throughout the evening.

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