"Am I dessert?" Neil Young wryly asked the crowd of about 600 who attended the annual concert benefiting the Silverlake Conservatory. He followed a set by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, playing for a crowd who'd paid a minimum of $2,000 a seat to attend the event in the historic Paramour Mansion overlooking downtown Los Angeles. "I think I'm the main course, but I like being dessert."
Young, 67, served up a half-hour-plus solo acoustic set Wednesday that included several of his own cornerstone numbers as well as versions of songs by fellow folk-rockers Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot and Phil Ochs.
The presence of one of rock's most respected veterans at the benefit, which started in 2003 at the tiny Edendale Grill with a small-scale performance by Tracy Chapman, signaled its growth from a grass-roots affair among the L.A. alt-rock community into a widely supported event. The benefit now draws such Southland movers and shakers as Mayor Eric Garcetti and billionaire businessman Ron Burkle. Garcetti toasted the conservatory and the music instruction its school offers children, regardless of their financial situation.
Among the other celebrity guests: actor Val Kilmer, actor and would-be rock god Jack Black and his musician wife, Tanya Haden, Gus Van Sant, Rancid's Tim Armstrong, Bad Religion founding member Brett Gurewitz, actresses Rosanna Arquette and Christina Applegate, director Roland Emmerich, Shepard Fairey, System of a Down's Serj Tankian and David Spade.
Young, dressed in a dark fedora and motorcycle boots, stomped and prowled the stage with his guitar and harmonica for most of his set. He also hunched over a battered upright piano for a couple of numbers on the temporary stage, which was erected on the grounds of the hilltop estate owned since 1998 by philanthropist Dana Hollister.
In addition to Young's performance, which he said was a return favor for the Chili Peppers' participation in his Bridge School benefit shows in Northern California, the evening involved a silent auction. The auction included donated works of art by luminaries including Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Fairey, Raymond Pettibon, Cecily Brown, filmmaker Van Sant and musician-actor-artist John Lurie.
The benefit was spearheaded by Chili Peppers' bassist Michael "Flea" Balzary and lead singer Anthony Kiedis, both of whom are on the conservatory's board of directors. They did double duty in a full-band performance with the rest of the Chili Peppers preceding Young.
Young's repertoire staples — "Comes a Time," "Harvest Moon" and "Heart of Gold" — were interspersed with Dylan's "Blowin' In the Wind," that timeless plea for humankind to rise above its primal instincts, Ochs' gorgeously poetic ode to transformation, "Changes," and fellow Canadian Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain," which Lightfoot drew out of his impressions of watching planes come and go at LAX in the early 1960s.
The Chili Peppers warmed up the crowd, who were seated at tables spread across the mansion's lawn. Kiedis ricocheted around the stage as he and his mates zipped through a quick 30-minute set of their signature rock-rap-funk-punk stew, including "The Adventure of Raindance Maggie," "Can't Stop," "Around the World" and an homage to the night's headliner with their version of Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere."
Kiedis also asked the crowd to join him in "a moment of noise," rather than the conventional moment of silence, to recognize the recent death of Velvet Underground founding member Lou Reed.
Flea offered a toast "to the children of Los Angeles. Thanks everyone for helping to bring music education to the children of Los Angeles." He unconsciously let fly an F-bomb, then apologized: "Forgive my language — this is a children's school. But," he added quickly with a devilish smile, "they're not here tonight."
He told The Times earlier in the evening that the conservatory is looking to buy a permanent facility rather than continue to pay $1 million a year to operate the facility it is using now at Sunset and Sanborn streets near Sunset Junction.
That, he said, would require $5 million to $6 million to buy one of a couple of pieces of property in the vicinity that school officials are looking at. He also said they're hoping to expand the school's scholarship program that assists families in need with reduced-cost or free instruments and lessons.
At the end of Young's set, the veteran rocker said, "Thanks — if you like me, give money to the school. That'll make me happy."