Lake Hughes is not the first place that comes to mind when you’re planning a concert with artists like Father John Misty, Norah Jones and Neil Young. Then again, this wasn’t your average concert. The Harvest Moon Gathering, a benefit founded in part by Neil Young along with his wife Pegi Young, is a day of food, drink and music alongside Lake Hughes at the Painted Turtle Camp, nestled in the canyons that run between Lancaster and the Santa Clarita Valley.
The entire concert was for the benefit of The Painted Turtle Camp and Bridge School. Started by Paul Newman and Page Adler in 1999, The Painted Turtle Camp allows kids with serious medical conditions to experience camp, free of charge. The Camp lets those kids have the chance to just be kids again. The Painted Turtle Camp is always looking for volunteers.
The Bridge School is an innovative non-profit organization that educates children with severe speech and physical impediments. Through novel teaching methods and creative approaches to education, The Bridge School works to help their students participate fully in their communities.
One of the big draws for the Harvest Moon Gathering was the promise of excellent food and drinks. The wine and beer tasting were included in the ticket price, and the options were abundant. Beer ranged from local IPA-focused breweries to authentic German imports with their seasonal Oktoberfestbiers. As for wine, I had a really nice Pinot and a Sauv Blanc that was a little too sour for my taste, but hey, free booze is free booze. Safe to say, it’s going to be hard to go back to $10 Coor’s Light concert beer after this.
The food choices included some stellar Korean BBQ chicken, Elote and vegan Buffalo cauliflower from Sage Vegan Bistro that had me going back for seconds. In addition to that gourmet lineup were ice cream sandwiches that grew more and more popular as the day wore on and the heat persisted. Doors opened at noon, which allowed people to take their time enjoying the food and drink options without having to scramble to catch the music.
Opening the music was Masanga, the self-described Painted Turtle House Band. An 11-piece Marimba band, Masanga’s music focused on West African and Caribbean rhythms with infectious melodies, featuring different members switching instruments and singing depending on the song. Their music set a relaxed and fun tone for the day and even had one shirtless guy with a beaded necklace and shoulder-length hair dancing like he was at Woodstock and had just taken three tabs of LSD to the dome.
Masanga was a pleasant surprise. Their grooves and enthusiasm won me over quickly and when they came out for their second set (after Father John Misty), more people joined the shirtless man in dancing to their music.
First to perform of the main acts was Father John Misty. His self-deprecating stage banter was an immediate hit with the audience. He announced himself as a guy who dresses like he owns a jet-ski dealership and admitted that most of the audience members had probably never heard of him before. While his stage banter got the crowd on his side, his set sealed the deal.
Audience members were treated to an intimate acoustic performance, sans the full and lively accompaniment that in part defines Father John Misty’s sound. The stripped-down performance, which had Father John Misty by himself playing piano or guitar and singing on stage, brought out the underlying tenderness and vulnerability that make up the core of his sardonic, tongue-in-cheek songs. His performance of songs like “Total Entertainment Forever” and “Hollywood Cemetery Forever Sings” really highlighted the power and richness of Misty's voice. It was a disarming and impressive performance. As Father John Misty announced his final song, the crowd echoed back in disappointment, wanting more.
Following Father John Misty was the incredible Norah Jones. Also coming out with a stripped-down sound, featuring herself on piano, bassist Gus Syffert and drummer Josh Adams, as well as vocalist and guitarist Sasha Dobson helping on a few songs, Jones delivered a set that had the entire audience enraptured. Beginning with her new song “Just a Little Bit,” the entire audience waited on her every skip down the piano, every soulful melody. Her blend of soul, jazz and songwriting creates a potent sonic combination that had goosebumps running up and down my arms on nearly every song. She played hits like “I Don’t Know Why,” and “Come Away With Me,” as well as groovy songs like “It Was You” that had my head bobbing impulsively to the beat. Again, as she announced her final song, the crowd echoed back for more. Luckily, it wouldn’t be the last we saw of the incredible Norah Jones.
After Norah Jones, there was a short break in which Danny DeVito came out on stage and thanked everyone for coming and supporting the Painted Turtle Camp and Bridge School. Anticipation continued to grow as the stage crew began setting up Young’s unique stage set-up. On the left was a grand piano colored in yellow and purple splashes. On the right was his parlor style piano, with visibly worn wood. Towards the back of the stage was the perpetual Native American wooden statue, reminiscent of those you see outside a cigar store, and an intricately carved and colored organ.
Young came out dressed in white from head to toe, with red tinted aviator glasses and his still-long hair flowing in the wind. He treated us to an acoustic set that seemed fitting after the stripped down performances of both Father John Misty and Norah Jones. For the first time in the day, nearly the entire crowd stood up to applaud and listen. Young dived into his set mixing new and old songs, hits and deep cuts, and even offering a few songs that required audience participation. A short technical problem paused the music for a few minutes, but also highlighted Young’s stage experience, as he used the opportunity to engage with the audience. Everyone there was with him, and with him for the full ride. His run of opening songs, which included “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man” and “I Am a Child” nearly had me in tears.
Now, I am a huge Neil Young fan, so I might be a bit biased, but the performance was so intimate, so honest and so authentically performed that it bordered on transcendent. This was Young at his most stripped-down—just his voice, a guitar, and a harmonica that had a direct line to everyone’s hearts. His trademark, percussive and twangy style of playing added a layer of expressiveness and brought out an almost banjo like quality in the guitar. As he walked from left to right across the stage, you could see the way the songs pulled him, almost like he was leaning into them, or following the wisps of their energy, leading him, and us in the crowd, along the way.
Young finished his set by bringing out Norah Jones and her band to perform “Harvest Moon,” a fitting song to sing as the sun slipped behind the hills. I don’t think there was an encore planned (the stage crew came out immediately after Young finished to take down the stage), but the calls were so persistent and loud for Young to return that even the stage crew began calling for him to return to the stage. And come back he did, performing “The Losing End” as a duet with Norah Jones. Some of the VIP boxes directly in front of the stage had emptied in the meantime, and so people surged forward to get as close as possible, albeit in an orderly and respectful fashion. It was an incredible moment, to be that close to Young, and it seemed he truly appreciated the crowd’s energetic and appreciative connection.
On the shuttle ride back to the parking lot, one lady in a blue dress and red rimmed glasses explained to everyone that there would in fact be a Harvest Moon that night. One man said that the Harvest Moon was the day before. As I drove back to LA through the dark and rural San Francisquito Canyon, where the stars stand out in the sky and where, if you turned your headlights off, a dense and almost permanent dark would pervade, a sharp and bright moon with a rusty yellow sheen appeared over the silhouetted hills. Harvest Moon or not, it was a fitting end to an incredible day of performances.