At the annual MusiCares Person of the Year dinner on the Friday night before the Grammy Awards, music and good deeds are celebrated, with star acts performing songs associated with the honoree. In most cases, performers and speakers reflect on what defines the songwriter/performer as an artist.
It’s up to the emcee and short films to explain the mission and work of MusiCares — helping members of the music community at times of crisis — and the significant charitable efforts of the artist in the spotlight for the evening.
Usually, the listing of an artist’s philanthropy is short and from the immediate past. That won’t be the case tonight, when MusiCares honors Neil Young.
“Neil is a catalyst,” says Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the Recording Academy, “committed to philanthropy and dedicated to doing good.”
For more than 40 years, Young has been an active voice for peace, the environment, education, family farmers and justice. In 1969 he wrote the antiwar song “Ohio,” and 37 years later recorded “Living With War” and followed it up with a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tour that was as political as it was musical.
A film of the tour, “Deja Vu,” shows Young and his bandmates putting nostalgia on the back burner to address more urgent needs: impeaching President Bush and putting an end to war while supporting and caring for the men and women sent into the field of battle.
“We believed in what he was trying to say and proud that he was bringing it to CSNY to get more ears and more eyes paying attention,” says Graham Nash about his bandmate. “(‘Deja Vu’) really showed what happened on that tour.”
David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Nash, who are about one-third of the way through recording a new album with producer Rick Rubin, will perform Young’s metaphorical car ode “Long May You Run” at tonight’s event at the Los Angeles Convention Center. More than 20 other acts are scheduled to perform, among them Norah Jones, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Elton John, Wilco, Ben Harper, Jack Black and Jackson Browne.
Crosby tells Daily Variety of “Long May You Run”: “I like what it says, and he will know what we’re saying about our relationship by doing that (song).”
The wealth of material from which these artists will draw runs long and deep, from Young’s stint as a member of Buffalo Springfield to his temperamental, on-and-off CSNY association to his prolific and influential solo career: from the early classics like “After the Gold Rush” and “Harvest” to the ragged glory of “Tonight’s the Night” and “Rust Never Sleeps” and beyond.
Praise for his artistry will be accompanied by discussion of his philanthropic efforts. Most famously, Young has held the Bridge Concerts since 1986, a two-day affair that has featured Paul McCartney, Eddie Vedder, Jerry Garcia and the Who and benefits the Bridge School in Hillsborough, Calif., an organization that educates children with severe speech and physical impairments. Young performs regularly at Farm Aid and sits on its board of directors.
“Neil Young is one of the best artists of our time,” Crosby says.
“He’s an unbelievably good singer-songwriter and a fantastic guitar player. He’s also very goddamn brave. Knowing how he has lived his life and the choices he has had to make make him stand out as a very courageous man.”
Ironically, Young has never won a Grammy but was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, twice, as a member of Buffalo Springfield and as a solo artist.
Last year, the MusiCares dinner honored Neil Diamond; the year before, an Aretha Franklin shindig pulled in a record $4.5 million for the org’s coffers. Portnow says requests for aid from MusiCares have risen in the past year but that donations have been relatively stable. Attendance for the Neil Young event is expected to top 2,200.
As in the recent past, the event will be recorded on high-definition video, primarily for archival purposes. Two of these Person of the Year galas have made their way onto DVD: the 2006 event honoring James Taylor, which was also a PBS pledge-drive program, and the 2005 Brian Wilson concert. DVD releases of the Franklin evening and the 2007 Don Henley show are being negotiated.
“In terms of production values, we don’t spend too much time or money on anything other than creating a great show for those in the room,” Portnow says. “Once you talk broadcast or webcast or DVD/CD, it injects an element of concern and attention. That being said, this is such a special event that we know we have to record it. Neil can see it on the other side and decide.”