Until about 10 minutes before I left work on Tuesday, December 8, I had no idea whether I would be present at what was billed as the first annual UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital benefit concert at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, headlined by Neil Young. When I’m not writing for Popdose, I spend my days keeping UCSF’s University Relations office operating smoothly, so it was through my coworkers that I first became aware of this big fund-raising event. At the very last moment, I found out that our staff photographer was denied permission to shoot, so she gave up her ticket. Big win for me.
Marc Benioff – chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com, the namesake of UCSF’s newly renamed children’s hospital, and as you can imagine, the biggest financial contributor to this cause – clearly admires the path Neil has paved for charitable work with his annual Bridge School benefit concerts. So Neil was a natural fit for this event. Perhaps not so natural was opening act Joanna Newsom, who started the musical proceedings with a solo performance after an impassioned set of introductory remarks by retired General Colin Powell, who proclaimed, “it’s a disgrace that we don’t have universal health care,” and further remarked that, “I know people have been screaming about it, but I’ve had socialized medicine for the last 52 years.” Ah, the joys of hearing thoughts spoken by a man who has no fear of political retribution. Naturally, he was speaking before a receptive crowd full of folks whose hearts, work lives and wallets are all closely linked to health care. But I digress…
My first remark upon learning of Joanna Newsom’s involvement in the concert was, “I can’t wait to see how this audience is going to react to her.” I was initially heartened to observe the full house respectfully listening to Joanna’s acquired taste of a vocal style, caught somewhere in an intersection between Kate Bush, Emmylou Harris, and a 5 year old flower child with a predisposition to thinking she’s a fairy. But it wasn’t enough that Joanna played her harp with an expert dexterity, enough to make you think you were hearing some other instrument (say, a banjo or a mandolin) if you closed your eyes.
After Joanna completed “The Book of Right-On” and “In California,” the crowd became restless, with enough folks getting up to use the john or grab a truffle to cause what I would call a disrespectful disruption to the intro of “Sawdust and Diamonds.” That’s all it took, three songs. But Joanna is more than just a cutie with a loveably eccentric musical style and a great big harp – she’s also a class act. Cutting straight to the point after finishing the lengthy cut from 2006’s acclaimed Ys, she declared that she was only going to play “a few shorter songs” before ceding the stage to “the reason you’re all here.” And she was probably just as anxious to see Neil as the rest of us, telling the crowd that she jumped at the opportunity to play on the same bill as her hero Neil for such a great cause. And with the promised short songs “On a Good Day” and “Sadie,” that was it for Joanna, having played a very brief, immaculate, and sadly under-appreciated set.
Following a brief intermission during which the high rolling audience had a chance to graze on some desserts and drinks, Neil took to the stage, which was decked out with two pianos, his old pump organ, and various guitars, for a 15 song solo set. Starting with acoustic guitar and harmonica, he began innocuously enough with a few classics – “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue),” “Tell Me Why” and “Helpless” – followed by a couple of songs from this year’s excellent Le Noise album, “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” and “Love and War,” with an unreleased tune, “You Never Call,” in between. The lyrics of the latter tune alternated between somber remembrances of a departed friend, and the comical juxtaposition of one who’s on the “ultimate vacation” while all we do is “work, work, work” – and the song was rewarded with quite a few very audible chuckles from throughout the hall.
Picking up his black Gibson electric guitar, the rock n’ roll rebel came out of Neil at this point. As I watched those around me appear to be thoroughly enraptured with the first of Neil’s electric songs of the evening, I wondered whether anyone caught the irony inherent in singing the lyrics “down by the river / I shot my baby” at a children’s hospital fund-raiser. Thinking such things is probably far more amusing to me than it should be, but wait – get this. Prior to Neil taking the stage, Colin Powell and Marc Benioff presented UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital poster child and budding young poet Paddy O’Brien, aged 11, with a medal of courage for his battle against a rare form of bone cancer, a battle which sees him winning as he is now in remission (and surely, too, his providing cookies to his fellow patients certainly earned some points). Young Paddy had a prime front row seat for the moment when Neil bashed out one of the stunning highlights of Le Noise, a harrowing story-song called “Hitchhiker,” in which Neil details his long, sordid history of drug use in candid detail, fearlessly calling out hash, amphetamines, grass and cocaine in a plain-spoken tale of rock n’ roll excess. Call that an education, son.
Almost as if the night’s purpose suddenly became clearer, Neil spoke for the first time during the set as he switched to a piano and introduced another unreleased song, “Leia,” as “a song for the little ones.” With a gentle melody and lyrics clearly of the sweet variety (sample: “catching falling leaves from the branches of the music tree”), this was the tune that finally brought some warm and fuzzy intimacy to Neil’s, up till this point, insular and enigmatic set.
The floodgates were open, and so Neil then proceeded to show off his pump organ, but he did not play it. As he explained, the organ – which he bought at a “junk shop” in Redwood City some 20 years ago – had been damaged in the recent fire that broke out in his warehouse, when the water from the firefighters’ hoses mixed with the organ’s water-based glue. So the organ served instead as an all-show-no-go aesthetic mood piece as Neil returned to his acoustic guitar to fittingly play “Long May You Run.”
Following a return to the piano for “I Believe In You” and an electric guitar-based “Rumblin’,” Neil left the stage to a standing ovation. When he returned for a single encore, he quizzically looked around and declared, “I don’t really know what I’m doing now!” Of course, this ended up being interpreted as an open invitation to the audience to call out requests, and after a few songs were called out, Neil ultimately decided to close with the powerful opening track on Le Noise, “Walk With Me,” as he wrung thick electric chords out of his guitar and closed it with a little dance, holding the guitar upright by its neck and shaking it back and forth as its pivot point rested on the floor of the stage. It was a typically idiosyncratic end to a typically idiosyncratic set by one of the most brilliant musical individuals around. It was also a sweet reward for all the good that the deep pocketed audience, which included Stevie Wonder, will.i.am and Beyonce, and the good folks at UCSF, are doing with their contributions and their hard work. Long may they all run.
Joanna Newsom’s set list:
“The Book of Right-On”
“Sawdust and Diamonds”
“On a Good Day”
Neil Young’s set list:
“My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)”
“Tell Me Why”
“You Never Call”
“Peaceful Valley Boulevard”
“Love and War”
“Down By The River”
“Sign of Love”
“Long May You Run”
“I Believe In You”
“Walk With Me”