After twenty-two years of throwing Farm Aid benefits in the heartland of America, the concert hit the largest city in the country last night. Held on Randalls Island in New York City, Farm Aid boasted one of the most diverse bills of the year -- with acts ranging from country to reggae to rock and even to polka. Held for the first time outside of an ampitheater or sports complex, the venue's gigantic field freed the organizers from the constraint of pre-existing concession stands and let them bring in row upon row of organic food grown from family farms. "Get some of the organic corn dogs," Dave Matthews said in the middle of his acoustic set with Tim Reynolds. "I already had five."
The Allman Brothers -- whose set was the by far the longest of the evening -- were unquestionably the hardest-working men at the show. Allman guitarist Derek Trucks played a fiery set with his own band, while his fellow ax-man Warren Haynes did a well-received acoustic set. Greg Allman played a sloppy/slurry acoustic rendition of "Midnight Rider" with Willie Nelson before being joined by Dave Matthews and Haynes for a slow version of "Melissa." Trucks also sat in for a bit of John Mellencamp's set, as did his wife Susan Tedeschi, who brought the house down a stellar "Little Pink Houses."
Many of the musical highlights of the evening were cover songs. Warren Haynes dug out the 1971 Elton John super-obscurity "Indian Sunset" -- a tale of an Indian driven from his land that was highly appropriate for the evening. He followed it up with a moving cover U2's "One." Matthews and Reynolds nailed Daniel Lanois' 2005 track "The Maker" and Neil and Pegi Young dueted on a note-perfect version of Ian and Sylvia's "Four Strong Winds." The only cover that fell flat was the Counting Crows' take on "Thunder Road," which they decided to mash-up with "Rain King." Neither song benefited from the bizarre treatment. Stranger still was polka king Jimmy Sturr, whose brief set consisted of Bobby Darin's Splish Splash and the Charlie Daniels Band staple "The Devil Went Down To Georgia." I guess you can polka-fy anything, but it's often not a good idea.
As is custom, the four musical members of the Farm Aid board (Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Willie Nelson) closed out the night. Matthews, who was the biggest draw of the night judging by the crowd's reaction, played a hits-heavy set that included "Crush" and "Gravedigger." Mellencamp followed up with a masterful set that included the Farm Aid anthem "Scarecrow," as well as "Small Town" and "Paper In Fire." His band has been stripped down (no more fiddle player) and has rarely sounded tighter. "Our Country" was performed solo acoustic and nearly managed to redeem itself.
Neil Young, as usual, completely walked away with the show. Joined only by his wife Pegi on acoustic guitar and pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, Young did an eight song set of hits ("Heart of Gold"), obscurities ("Human Highway") and Farm Aid staples ("Homegrown"). It was his first set in nearly a year but he sounded like he had been perfecting his show on the road for months. Young also debuted the first track from the forthcoming Chrome Dreams II, a tender ballad called "Bluebird" that sounded more like a track from Prairie Wind than the lost 1976 album Chrome Dreams. Before launching into "Homegrown," Young slyly said the song "used to be about one thing now it's about another." Translation: the song was written about the glory of growing your own marijuana, but it's now about the glory of organic food grown on family farms. Willie Nelson -- who who knows a thing or two about both subjects -- sat in on guitar. Both he and Young beamed from ear to ear as they tried to in vain to get the crowd to sing "Homegrown, it's a good thing, plant that bell and make it ring."
Check out photos from Farm Aid here.