LIVE: Stephen Stills and Neil Young Light Up the Blues with Friends and Family at the Pantages (5/21/16)

The fourth annual benefit for Autism Speaks was an all-star affair underscoring the healing power of rockin’ in the free world. Stephen’s daughter, Alex Stills, reports.  

If there is anything I have taken away from growing up in the Stills family, it’s that art raises awareness. So when my father, Stephen Stills, and stepmother Kristen joined forces with Matt Asner of Autism Speaks just four years ago, it was clear they were onto something.

Now in its prime, the fourth annual Light Up the Blues benefit concert proved to illuminate the same values rooted in the household I know best. Along with a night full of swelling guitar riffs from some of rock and roll’s greats (Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Kenny Wayne Shepherd) the benefit—held for the second time at the Pantages Theatre—shed light on aspiring musicians with autism, and how just like for some of the industry’s legends, music sets them free.

After an introduction from the returning emcee, Jack Black, the sold-out theater was transported from the historic, art deco venue to the Stills family living room. It was only appropriate, then, for my father to take on a raw, acoustic version of Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” before bringing on that songwriter’s progeny, Jakob Dylan.

photo by Ellie Stills

Jakob Dylan and Chris Stills / photo by Ellie Stills

Dylan’s folky rock set (The Wallflower’s “One Headlight” and a portion of CSNY’s “Carry On/Questions”) was followed by a range of other heart-filled performances by artists like The War on Drugs (“In Reverse,” and “Eyes to the Wind”), Nikka Costa (“Keep Wanting More,” and “Can’t Please Anybody”) and my brother, Chris Stills (“Criminal Mind,” and  “Lonely Nights”), who was also the Musical Director of the benefit.

The family flare persisted, thanks to the house band (Chris Stills along with Chris Layton, Kevin McCormick, Doug Pettibone, and Zac Rae) and the charming addition of my eleven-year-old brother, Oliver Stills, who effortlessly accompanied every act of the four-hour event with bongo drums—only yawning here and there.

Amid the musical acts were some unfaltering comedic moments, as Matt Walsh, Andy Dick, Judd Apatow, and Christina Applegate joined Jack Black in efforts to raise money for Autism Speaks through text-to-donate bits along with a guitar auction. There, items like Neil Young’s own DNA—in the form of two used harmonicas—were bid off.

photo by Ellie Stills

Judd Apatow / photo by Ellie Stills

The comedians also introduced some of the artists on the autism spectrum—providing backstories that warmly reinstated the importance of the event for these musicians, their families, and the audience as a whole.

“Performing is a big release for me,” said Kyle Cousins, who gave an upbeat rock performance (“Down”). “Once I am on stage, there is no more autism; I am in my comfort zone completely.”

Joining Cousins were other musicians and guests on the spectrum, like pop-singer Nikki Nik (“Innocent Eyes”), rapper Soulshocka, who was accompanied by DJ Bigg Plush (“It’s Shocking”), and Neal Katz, who introduced a touching documentary-style short film about last year’s opera performance by Spencer Harte.

photo by Ellie Stills

Stephen Stills and Neil Young / photo by Ellie Stills

The night closed out with an anticipated bang as The Rides (Stills with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Barry Goldberg) delivered a clean, blues set with a cadence to match the crowd’s upswing. This swiftly led into Neil Young’s awaited (but quick) acoustic set, soon joined by my father and brother first for a harmonized “Human Highway.” This was followed by an all-out Buffalo Springfield nostalgia fest, featuring “Mr. Soul” and “For What It’s Worth.”

A cohort of musicians, organizers, and families joined the power duo on stage for a final “Rockin’ in the Free World.” The magnetism of it all, between my dad and Neil especially, reinforced the point of the whole benefit—bringing with it the potency of longtime friendships, family, and for the artists on the autism spectrum, a stage to feel at home on. FL

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