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Stephen Stills aims to Light Up the Blues for Autism Speaks

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and his wife take the reins in a benefit concert featuring pals Crosby and Nash, plus Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams and others.

April 08, 2013|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
  • Musician Stephen Stills and wife Kristen Stills are heading the benefit concert.
Musician Stephen Stills and wife Kristen Stills are heading the benefit… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

On his own and as a member of Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young), two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Stephen Stills has taken part in many a benefit concert over the last four decades, but usually his role has been that of rock singer and guitarist.

That changes with the Light Up the Blues benefit concert on Saturday for Autism Speaks, which CSN is headlining and also features Lucinda Williams, Rickie Lee Jones, Don Felder, Ryan Adams and several others at Club Nokia. Actor-musician Jack Black will emcee the show.

"It's the first time I've hosted a large benefit," Stills, 68, said last week in a joint interview with his wife and benefit co-organizer Kristen. "Usually Graham [Nash] and his organization have done this for all kinds of causes. I've never fronted one.

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"There's a reason, I'm finding out," he said, laughing. "Something like this is supposed to take a year to put together, and we decided to do this over the holidays. It's an adventure, but certainly nothing I'm not familiar with."

The Stillses have been involved in autism-related events for several years, spurred by a diagnosis years ago that their son Henry, now 16, has Asperger's syndrome, an autism-spectrum condition that can interfere with conventional functions and relationships.

In making the leap to assemble a benefit themselves, they didn't have to look further than longtime pal Neil Young's annual Bridge School concerts held in the Bay Area for the organization that helps people with severe speech and physical impairments and their families.

"The Bridge School event is probably the best one," Stills said. "They took everything they learned from other people's benefits and perfected it. This stuff gets complicated when you're dealing with road managers and production managers. But once we decided to do it, people just kept showing up saying they wanted to be involved. That's when you know you've got a winner."

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There will be a family feeling to the show, with the Stillses' musician son Christopher among the performers, and bringing along his friend, Ryan Adams. Stills himself invited a member of the first band he ever played in: former Eagles guitarist Don Felder, whom Stills befriended when both were teenagers in Gainesville, Fla.

And then there's Crosby, Stills & Nash, the veteran trio that typically plays amphitheaters and arenas, not 2,000-seaters like Club Nokia.

"It's really wonderful that Graham and David decided to do this," Stills said. "They came in and saved the day."

The multi-act concert, which also will be filmed for home video release, coincides with national Autism Awareness Month, celebrated each April.

The division of labor among the two principles leaves most of the logistics to Kristen, a film producer who collected a prime-time Emmy Award for her part in the 2007 documentary "Autism — The Musical," which was inspired by their son's experience taking a musical theater class when he was 7.

"I've been working on the script for a few weeks," Kristen said. "Jack is so open and willing to do whatever we ask, and we're leaving it wide open for him to improvise wherever he wants."

She cited a fundraising goal of $500,000 for this venture, factoring in proceeds from ticket sales for Saturday's concert as well as future revenue from the DVD.

"We want to be able to do it again, and maybe make it an annual or biannual event," she said. "In order to pull that off you have to show out of the gate that the revenue is there."

Spreading information about autism, she said, is every bit as important as the money.

"Awareness is huge," she said. "There are so many people that are new to the diagnosis who don't know about it [Autism Speaks]. The statistics are that there are about 1 in 50 children and adults with autism, so it's something everybody needs to know about."

Henry Stills attends Champs Charter School in Van Nuys, exploring his own interest in filmmaking. Stephen says his son is "doing great" and making friends — never a slam dunk for the bright but often socially awkward kids with Asperger's.

"I have been afforded that special gift of time to focus on Henry because Stephen is always out there on the road," Kristen said. "So many parents call me who don't have the time to pursue all the means with which they could help their child. So we're very grateful that papa keeps pounding the concert trail."

The role of rock star is one that comes easily to a musician who was welcomed into the Rock Hall of Fame first for his part in Buffalo Springfield, and again as a member of Crosby, Stills & Nash.

"That's why Autism Speaks exists," he said. "They can talk eloquently about the issues so the musicians don't have to. I'm just a guitar player, man."

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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Light Up the Blues

With Crosby, Stills & Nash, Lucinda Williams, Rickie Lee Jones, Don Felder, Ryan Adams, emcee Jack Black, others in concert benefiting Autism Speaks

Where: Club Nokia, 800 W Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $38.50 to $125

Information: (213) 765-7000 or http://www.axs.com/events

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