Midway through his mini-set at the Light Up The Blues benefit concert for Autism Speaks, Neil Young stood up from the piano where he’d just finished a haunting rendition of the After The Goldrush chestnut “Birds” and told the crowd that he wanted to bring his “brother” onto the stage. He wasn’t talking about his actual brother Bob, but rather a guy he met at a Toronto coffee shop back in 1965 and worked with off-and-on for the last 50-plus years: Stephen Stills.
It’s been a bumpy journey for the two of them over all that time, especially since Young has a nasty habit of walking away from their collaborative projects just when they start to get really interesting. But even though Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young seem to have finally broken up for good and Buffalo Springfield and the Stills-Young Band are little more than hazy memories from the distant past, they still have an explosive onstage chemistry and a true love for one another that was apparent from the opening notes of “Long May You Run” and continued through the Springfield classics “For What It’s Worth” and “Mr. Soul.” It was a joy to see that spark in person.
The all-too-brief set – which concluded when Patti Smith came out to join them for “People Have The Power” – was one of the many highlights of the fifth Light Up The Blues concert, which was put together by Stills and his wife Kristen to help people with autism, including their college-age son Henry. “With the help of steadfast friends and concerned professionals that shared our our determination,” Stephen Stills told the capacity crowd at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, “Kristen and I battled through conflicting diagnoses, emerging information and trial-and-error and were able to find a path that lead our boy to a far better way of life and now he’s in college.”
As always, Jack Black emceed the show, though Sarah Silverman, Christina Applegate and many others were also on hand to introduce the various performers. First up was Judy Collins, who is about to kick off another leg of her co-headlining tour with Stills. They performed “Handle With Care” by the Traveling Wilburys with Collins before she took the spotlight herself for “Both Sides Now.” She was followed by Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench and Steve Ferrone of the Heartbreakers, who haven’t played together since Tom Petty’s death last October.
Nobody on the stage said the name “Tom Petty” or even “Heartbreakers,” but when they launched into “I Won’t Back Down” with Stills on lead vocals the emotion in the room was high. The Hearbreakers haven’t begun to chart a forward course without their leader and Mike Campbell did just sign on to play Lindsey Buckingham’s parts on the next Fleetwood Mac tour, but at least they’ve now taken their first steps towards finding a way to keep the Petty catalog alive.
Patti Smith wasn’t initially on the bill for Light Up The Blues, so many in the audience were shocked and delighted when she came on and played “Because The Night” with Campbell and the house band. Stephen’s son Christopher broke out his original tune “Feels Like A Revolution” and then brought out Jack Black for a crowd sing-along rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with the comedian doing his best to sing the complex instrumental parts in a scene that felt like an outtake from School of Rock.
With his 90th birthday less than a month away, Burt Bacharach doesn’t play much in public these days. But he had a daughter with autism and the event is clearly very close to his heart. He accompanied Sheryl Crow on the piano, performing “Dancing With Your Shadow” from the soundtrack to A Boy Called Po, looking about as spry as one can at 89. When he left the stage, the house band returned to back Crow on her new song “Long Way Back” and “Everyday Is a Winding Road.”
During intermission, Jack Black auctioned off three guitars signed all of the evening’s performers for $100,000, counting $25,000 he tossed in himself. Beck was one of the names, which somewhat ruined his surprise entrance near the start of the second set. He delivered a gorgeous “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and then got everyone out of their seats for a wild “Where It’s At.” The man hasn’t shared many bills with Burt Bacharach and Judy Collins, but that’s the magic of shows like Light Up The Blues.
Neil Young was easily the most anticipated performer of the night, especially since he hasn’t played live since his homecoming show in Omemee, Ontario over four months ago. He began with a strange, tentative rendition of “Sugar Mountain” where he moved back and forth between the guitar and piano. The song has been a regularly part of his repertoire going back to the 1960s, but he’s never quite done it like that before. He followed it with the “I Am a Child” from his Buffalo Springfield days, but his back was to the crowd through some of it and his vocals were a little soft and hesitant.
Things straightened out considerably with an unexpected “Birds” on the piano and “Mother Earth” on the pump organ, and by the time Stills joined him for their mini-set he was showing not even a tiny spot of rust. “People Have The Power” has closed out countless benefit shows in the past, but when it wrapped a piano was wheeled onto the stage and Bacharach shuffled out and sat behind him. Everyone else from the evening followed and together they sang “What The World Needs Now Is Love.” It was the perfect message of hope and resilience to send the audience home with, though before he left Stills already told the crowd he’d see them next year.