Neil Young and Stephen Stills Light Up the Stage at L.A. Autism Benefit

Bandmates reunite for stirring charity event featuring Steve Earle, Jack Black and more

Stephen Stills and Neil Young performed together at Light Up the Blues in Los Angeles on April 25th, 2015. Credit: Andy Keilen

The long, raging collaboration between Neil Young and Stephen Stills erupted again Saturday during a full night of music to benefit autism research and advocacy at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. The third annual "Light Up the Blues" concert organized by Stills and his wife, Kristen, included short sets by Steve Earle, Shawn Colvin and Chris Stills. The emcee was Jack Black, dressed for the occasion in a brown suit and hat, calling the show "the night of a lifetime!" and "It could just as easily be called mind-blowers united!"

Stills has lent his name and music to many charitable causes over the decades, but as he entered the theater, he told Rolling Stone this one was different. "This one's mine," he said. "Now you find out who your friends are."

Stills opened the night with "So Begins the Task," a song from 1972, strumming an acoustic guitar, his voice forlorn and vulnerable. Stills and Shawn Colvin sang her arrangement of Graham Nash's "I Used to Be a King," joined by a full band, including Stills' youngest son Oliver on hand drums.

Throughout the night, gifted young musicians on the autistic spectrum appeared: singer Spencer Harte (with violinist Petra Haden) on "Ave Maria," jazz pianist Matt Savage for his "We Are Alive" and Nick Guzman on guitar and vocals for "Am I Trembling," looking a bit like early Neil Young with his heavy muttonchops.

Chris Stills sat at a baby grand for "Don't Be Afraid," a smoky rock ballad that swelled into some darker emotions. And White Buffalo, best known for songs on the TV biker drama "Sons of Anarchy," delivered a pair of brooding, rocked up tunes, with stretched out lines of pedal steel.

Up next was Steve Earle, a songwriter of depth and emotion in the tradition of Young and Stills. He began with "Remember Me," a deeply felt song to his youngest son that was both sad and hopeful. "I am an optimist," he told the crowd. "You can tell because I am 60 years old and I have a son who is 5."

His son, John Henry, was diagnosed as autistic shortly before his second birthday. Speaking to Rolling Stone before the show, Earle said he immediately contacted Stills and his wife. "I fell back on them pretty hard when going through the process of figuring out what to do with the diagnosis," Earle said. "I see now that he had symptoms long before we had any idea."

Earle also performed the sultry, sticky blues of "You're the Best Lover That I Ever Had," with Chris Stills on piano, followed by "Tell Moses," a new folk duet with Colvin, which they expect to record for an album next year. 

After an intermission, Black conducted a frenzied auction for a Fender electric guitar signed by all the performers. One of the first bidders was Brad Pitt, an unannounced guest who immediately got into a bidding war with Black and others before winning at a cost of $23,000.

Soon, Pitt was onstage to introduce headliners Stills and Young. "Without those guys, a lot of us would've had better grades in high school," he said to laughs.

Stills and Young began with "Long May You Run," the title song to their 1976 collaborative album, with Young on searing harmonica. It was a soothing, brotherly beginning, Young moving restlessly around the stage, but always drawn back toward Stills. They followed with the gentle folk rock of "Human Highway," both strumming and plucking acoustic guitars, and harmonizing the words: "How could people get so unkind?"

Stills led on "Virtual World," a dreamy rock ballad with ragged bursts of electric guitar from Young as Stills sang: "Just by looking back, I can tell you life ain't so scary."

Their set also included Stills' "Bluebird," which he described as a song "from a faraway galaxy, long, long ago." The stage shook with psychedelic passages as Stills and Young's guitars weaved in and out. Then came Young's "Mr. Soul," the 1967 Buffalo Springfield song that first fully revealed the snarling, idiosyncratic rock force Young was destined to become.

A telling moment came as Stills introduced "For What It's Worth," the generational anthem of discontent that he wrote as a member of Buffalo Springfield. "Is this song 50 years old?" wondered Stills.

"Maybe," Young replied.

"It doesn't seem to matter, which is kind of sad," Stills said, suggesting ongoing relevance in light of recent conflicts across the U.S.

"Fifty is the new 20," Young joked.

Stills and Young then tore into the song, two electric guitars of fury and finesse. At the end, both had big smiles and excitedly patted each other's shoulders, marking a moment of euphoria and accomplishment. A half-century later, as equal partners on the Pantages stage, their shared mission continued.