Captain Ghost performs at a previous Concert for Autism. Credit: Laura Hunt Little

The Concert for Autism has been a staple of both charity work and the Coachella Valley music scene for years.

The popular annual event raises money for the Desert Autism Foundation through donations, T-shirt sales, silent auctions and raffles, while featuring a wide variety of local music. In the past, the event has featured acts including John Garcia, The Hellions and Throw the Goat, just to name a few.

This year’s event will take place on two different days: The “warm-up event” will take place on Sunday, Nov. 14, at Coachella Valley Brewing Co., while the main event will occur on Saturday, Nov. 20, at Big Rock Pub. (Full disclosure: I’ll be performing during the main event.)

“The last four years, we’ve done at the Tack Room, and they’ve been fantastic for us,” said Josh Heinz, a local musician and a founder of the Concert for Autism. “We would have stayed at the Tack Room—except it’s kind of odd coming off of COVID and trying to plan it all.”

Heinz said the busy schedules of the 15 or so volunteers, many of whom are in the audiovisual industry, helped cause both the move from the Tack Room and the event’s later-than-usual dates.

“Jeff Mazer and Greg Little have been doing sound for us for seven years, and they helped set up the system inside the Big Rock Pub, and they were like, ‘Look, the infrastructure’s there; the sound and lights are already there. We’ll be playing inside, and they have heaters already attached to the outside patio, so we can do an acoustic stage outside, and people aren’t going to get cold,’” Heinz said. “We’re still in a pandemic, and I would have preferred to have been fully outside, but we’ll keep the doors open with air flowing as much as we can. We can’t make anybody show vax cards or negative tests unless the state or county or city mandates that, but we recommend people get vaccinated and wear masks. I’ll be wearing a mask pretty much all the time at the show, except for when I’m playing, because we’ve got an 8-year-old son here, and he can’t get vaccinated. I’m always worried about being a carrier.”

While the Big Rock Pub is a completely new venue for the event, Coachella Valley Brewing Co. is returning after being part of the last in-person Concert for Autism, in 2019—the first time the concert had two “coinciding events.”

“Wesley (Gainey) from CVB came to me and was like, ‘Hey, I want to help support; can we do an Acoustic Sunday for your guys’ benefit?’” Heinz said. “He came to me pretty early this year, when we were first able to start having shows, and still wanted to be a part of the benefit. That’s going to be outside as long as it doesn’t get really windy, as it sometimes does at CVB.”

Heinz admitted that it was a difficult decision to put on a live event right now.

“Linda and I, you know, ultimately, it’s our decision, and we have to decide, like, is it worth it?” Heinz said. “The decision we came to was that it looks like the (COVID-19) numbers are going down. We’re all vaccinated in the house except for Jack. We’re going to wear masks when we’re there, because we’re talking to hundreds of people during the benefit, and we’ll just ask everybody to be safe. We said, ‘Look, come Nov. 1, if all of a sudden, numbers start trending in a different direction, there’s always a possibility of saying: Thanks, but no.’ That’s just the realism of doing something in the COVID age.

“I think this is almost like a transition year. Hopefully the numbers will continue to go down, and more and more people get vaccinated, and by next year, we can go back to the format we had, with two days at the Tack Room, and even more donations and all that stuff.”

John Garcia and the Band of Gold performs at a previous Concert for Autism. Credit: Laura Hunt Little

Heinz said pandemic uncertainty is one of the main reasons why “everything’s late this year.”

“I’m usually already really working on the benefit as the summer rolls around,” Heinz said. “In June, I’m already starting to go out and get sponsors, or get people to donate for the silent-auction raffle. I didn’t start any of that until (September), and even now (when we spoke), we’re almost four weeks from the show, and I don’t have any fliers printed or T-shirts made. Fortunately, even people and businesses that have had some tough times are still stepping up. Xpress Graphics is still going to print stuff for us, and Impression Design is still going to do T-shirts for us. It’s really awesome that those two businesses, along with others, are able to and still want to support us, even though times have been crazy.”

While the fundraising aspects this year are similar to previous Concerts for Autism, the 2021 edition will be done on a smaller scale—including only having a one-day main event, compared to the usual two.

“It’s a suggested donation at the door, and we’ll sell T-shirts, and all that money will go to the cause,” said Heinz. “We’ll have some raffle tables, but they’ll be smaller than previous years. At the Tack Room, we filled a really long table, but this year will be different. You can also bid on whatever silent auction items we have, and of course, if someone’s generous, they can throw money in our bucket. If people can’t attend, or they would prefer not to attend, they can always donate online. If there are any businesses that want to donate something, certainly contact us through the page.”

This year’s event will feature acts including The Ghost Notes, Krystofer Do, The Hellions and many others—as well as a special performance by children with autism.

“Linda teaches voice, piano and flute to a couple of higher-functioning kids on the spectrum,” Heinz said. “Every year, we’ve had one play each night, when we were doing it two nights. This year, we weren’t even going to ask the kids, because we didn’t want to put them in a bad position because of COVID, but two of her students were like, ‘Can I please play?’”

While the event usually includes some activities for kids, the aforementioned special performance will be the extent of children’s involvement this year.

“We did away with the kids’ events, because kids can’t (yet) get vaccinated,” said Heinz. “We do not recommend bringing unvaccinated kids to the event. Certainly, we want people there, but by cutting out the activities and telling people that upfront, we’re trying to just nip that thing in the bud. We’re coming from the perspective of parents with an 8-year-old who can’t get vaccinated. He’s not coming, and he’s been to the benefit every year since he’s been alive.”

The same compassion that has always been the driving force behind the event is leading Josh and Linda Heinz to make sure the event is as safe as possible.

“Even going down to thinking about the auction tables—we’ve got to sanitize the pens, buy those big hand-sanitizer pumps, and do those types of things,” Heinz said. “We’re trying to be as safe as we can. Even when I go play, I try to be as safe as I can. Even Linda, she’s like, ‘You know what? I’m probably going to wear my mask onstage.’ I don’t have a problem at all with anybody wearing masks. I think it’s a good thing; it’s really about caring for others—until we get all this figured out.”

The Concert for Autism’s acoustic warm-up event will take place from noon to 6 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 14, at Coachella Valley Brewing Co., 30640 Gunther St., in Thousand Palms. A donation is requested. The main event will start at 2 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 20, at Big Rock Pub, 79940 Westward Ho Drive, in Indio. A $10 donation is suggested. For more information, call 760-702-4110, or visit concertforautism.com.

Matt King

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. A creative at heart, his love for music thrust him into the world of journalism at 17 years old, and he hasn't looked back. Before...