Neil Young and Stephen Stills Reunite at Light Up The Blues Benefit Concert for Autism Speaks Review+Photos: Light Up The Blues 6 at The Greek Theatre 4/22/23
LOS ANGELES, CA- After a five-year hiatus, Light Up The Blues, a concert to benefit Autism Speaks, returned this weekend with a stunning evening of rare performances marked by the reunion of Neil Young and Stephen Stills — half of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young — who shared a number of songs together and celebrated the life of their late bandmate David Crosby. It also marked the first time Young has performed an extended live set in five years.
The folk-rock legends were joined for the sixth LUTB event by Stephen’s son Chris Stills, Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson + Promise of the Real, Joe Walsh, Sharon Van Etten and others, alongside featured artists on the autism spectrum such as singer-songwriter and “Voice” contestant Will Breman, opera singer Amanda Anderson and rapper Rio “Soulshocka” Wyles. Hosted by comedian Jeff Garlin and featuring Camryn Manheim of “Law & Order” and Amanda Kloots of “The Talk,” this year’s concert took place under the stars at the iconic Greek Theater in Los Angeles (with Paul McCartney rumored to be in attendance).
Since its inception a decade ago, LUTB has been a passion project of Stephen and Kristen Stills, who have a child on the spectrum. Rather than simply putting on another benefit, LUTB celebrates the diverse talents of autistic artists while bringing to the stage a masterclass of musicians, all of whom have a heart for the cause, many because of loved ones on the spectrum or with other disabilities.
Manheim got involved with LUTB as a friend of the Stills family, but she has also worked with people with autism for years because she knows sign language — a lot of children, she said before the show, can sign before they speak.
“It’s a very exciting time in our history. It’s the first time I’ve seen progress on a grander scale,” said Manheim, who advocates for storylines for people with other abilities on “Law and Order,” and for those stories not to revolve around disability.
“It took a long time, but now it’s really happening, with ‘Coda’ winning an Oscar and [with more inclusive TV shows],” she said. “It helps us see that we are really hungry for these stories. … Let’s expand it and really see humanity.”
The night’s most rock and roll set came by way of Joe Walsh, the storied guitarist of the Eagles and James Gang. In recent years, Walsh has spoken about his own Asperger’s Syndrome, OCD and ADD. Sober for over two decades, his opening classic “Life’s Been Good” felt full of life and had the crowd singing and dancing along.
“If I knew I was going to have to play this next song for the rest of my life I would have wrote something else,” Walsh joked before “Rocky Mountain Way.”
Lukas Nelson also displayed fiery guitar chops and his penchant for great songwriting with his band, Promise of the Real.
For fans of the Laurel Canyon sound of the ’60s and ’70s, LUTB has been sacred ground, giving audiences through the years the inimitable harmonies of Stills, Nash and Crosby, with Neil Young playing a bevy of his hits alongside iconic tracks with various former bandmates. This year was the first without the possibility of being joined by David Crosby, who died in January.
In a poignant video, Graham Nash said that “David was my best friend for almost 50 years. … I think about him every day” and introduced a recording of CSN’s “Guinnevere,” featuring Wynston Marsalis on the trumpet. Crosby’s son, James Raymond, then paid tribute to his father by playing organ on a sprawling rendition of “Wooden Ships.”
Other moments brought levity, with Stephen Stills joking about how he doesn’t play the banjo before playing the banjo during a deep-cut Buffalo Springfield track (big night for Buffalo fans — they played five songs). Young poked fun at minor performance flubs in the dusted-off track and quipped that AI can now think of lyrics before him.
“I come from another place,” Young said. “If I were a robot, that never would’ve happened, OK? Remember what you’re missing.”
Clad in an oversized flannel shirt with a railroad hat obscuring his head, he humbly paced the stage, performing some of his most recognizable acoustic tracks while playing his signature harmonica lines on classics like “Heart of Gold.” Understated but elegant, Young’s set was stirring, and so very typically Neil Young.
While the formidable Promise of the Real served as the house band for the night, Chris Stills kept busy, too. He played a set of originals, sung with his canyon-sized voice, and accompanied artists throughout the three-and-a-half-hour set, from joining Sharon Van Etten for a folkier version of “Seventeen” to throwing down guitar solos alongside his dad and Joe Walsh. The exchange between father and son, the latter playing a guitar older than he is, was especially touching.
Getting back into full performing after Covid is still a challenge. Stephen Stills, walking the blue carpet before the show — blue is the color of autism awareness — acknowledged that soundcheck felt “rusty.” But these are hall-of-fame guitar heroes, after all, and if there was any rust, it only proved that rust indeed never sleeps.
The whole evening carried a palpable feeling of excitement, like new musicians getting to jam together for the first time, even though that’s far from their circumstance. To see Neil Young smile at his friend of decades as they played the soundtrack to the lives of so many at the Greek was a transcendent moment.
“Long May You Run,” the classic Stills and Young number that closed the show, seemed a fitting tribute to the longevity of the acts represented. Willie Nelson, who played a short-but-sweet medley with his sons Lukas and Micah, will be celebrating his 90th birthday this weekend with a star-studded bash at the Hollywood Bowl, showing no signs of slowing. Buffalo Springfield, represented by Stills and Young, is 60 years from its start — chrome hearts still shining in the sun.
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