"Friends, I'm 94 and don't have much voice left," said surprise Farm Aid guest Pete Seeger when he took the stage near the end of the annual benefit concert. "Here is a song I think you may know. I think if we sing it together we'll make it a good song." He wasn't kidding about the state of his voice, but he projected as much as he could and 26,000 fans joined him in a sing-along rendition of "If I Had A Hammer," a tune he wrote with Lee Hayes a stunning 64 years ago.
Seeger, making one of his first major public appearances since the death of his wife, Toshi, in July, then invited Farm Aid board members Dave Matthews, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson onstage for a rousing "This Land Is Your Land." None of them brought guitars, allowing Seeger and his banjo to take the lead. He guided the crowd and the four music icons huddled beside him through the oft-ignored "private property" verse (causing Young to raise his arms in victory). They even introduced a new verse about New York state that culminated with "New York was made to be frack free."
The brief set was the emotional high-point of the 11-hour festival, held this year at the Saratoga Springs Performing Arts Center in upstate New York. Farm Aid was founded in 1985 by Willie Nelson after he heard Bob Dylan's impromptu comment at Live Aid that some of the money raised should be used to help farmers pay their mortgages. The line incensed Live Aid co-founder Bob Geldof (who felt it was off-message and trivial when compared to the famine in Ethiopia), but Nelson felt differently; just a few months later, he held the first Farm Aid in Champaign, Illinois.
That first show came at the height of the all-star benefit concert/single, but while Hands Across America, USA for Africa, Northern Lights, Self Aid and Hear 'n Aid are now distant memories, Farm Aid has continued to thrive and grow. It's partially due to the passion of Nelson and his fellow board members, but also because the organization has broadened its message to resist fracking efforts and support biofuels, a fact that Neil Young was happy to remind the crowd of at every opportunity. (Their focus, of course, continues to be helping struggling family farmers.)
The proceedings kicked off with brief sets by up-and-comers Jesse Lenat, Sasha Dobson and Insects vs. Robots. This reporter didn't arrive until 1:30 p.m., when Pegi Young and the Survivors walked out. The Survivors are an extremely impressive crew, with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Spooner Oldham on piano and Rick Rosas on bass. Neil Young sat in with the group on guitar, though he made sure to remain in the back and cede the spotlight to his wife, Pegi, as she has done for him many times in the past. Pegi mixed in songs from her recent albums with a cover of Oldham's "Lonely Women Make Good Lovers." Some people in the crowd didn't even recognize the guest guitarist until she introduced the band at the end.
Two children of country music legends took the stage in the mid-afternoon: Carlene Carter and Lukas Nelson. Carter, daughter of June Carter and Carl Smith, has been carrying on her family's music tradition for decades. She played a handful of songs from her forthcoming autobiographical album and reminisced about her family. "I spent most of my childhood in the back of a big black Cadillac, carsick as hell while my grandfather drove," she said. "I miss them every day."
Willie Nelson's son Lukas – introduced as the "Future of Farm Aid" – is just 24, but he's been playing with his father since he was little and is an extremely impressive guitarist. He's released two albums with his band Promise of Real, and when they jammed, they truly sounded like Cream – until Lukas began playing guitar with his teeth and they sounded like the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The trick brought the crowd to their feet, forever ending the debate about whether musical talent is hereditary.
Nineties survivors Toad the Wet Sprocket seemed like outliers on a bill dominated by country and classic rock artists, but they quickly won over the crowd by opening with their 1992 breakthrough hit "All I Want." They only had 20 minutes, and in that time they jammed with Lukas Nelson and his sister Amy, and crammed in their other hits, "Walk on the Ocean" and "Fall Down." It was the entire Toad the Wet Sprocket experience in an incredibly compact period of time. Maybe next year the Gin Blossoms should come, too. It was a nice change of pace.
Amos Lee was one of the only people of the night to play completely solo acoustic. He's not quite a household name yet, but the singer-songwriter has a a very devoted following, and his last album even debuted at Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. They were running a little behind schedule at this point, and after just four songs, he was told to just do one more. "Should I do one of my own?" he asked the crowd. "Or should I do one by Sam Cooke?" The vote seemed to be split, but he went for Cooke and delivered a spellbinding rendition of "A Change Is Gonna Come."
A seventh-place runner-up from the 2007 season of Nashville Star (country's version of American Idol) seems like another unlikely candidate for Farm Aid, but Kacey Musgraves is a genuine talent. She just turned 25, but she's already on her fourth album, Same Trailer Different Park. It's a loose concept disc about struggling Americans, and the songs were perfect for the event. She's also a highly charismatic frontwoman, even getting people who were clearly there just for Jack Johnson and Dave Matthews to sing along. Televised singing competitions rarely create genuine stars (especially in recent years), but Musgraves is the rare exception.
Jamey Johnson was up next. The country star (who looks like a missing cast member from Duck Dynasty) also sang about down-and-out Americans, but his characters were devastated by bad relationships, drugs and booze. Johnson wrapped his set with "In Color," about an old man reflecting on the devastating impact of the Great Depression and World War Two. The parallels to the present were fairly obvious.
A sizable chunk of the crowd was clearly there for Jack Johnson. He's only played a handful of American shows in the past three years (including Bonnaroo), and his fans went ballistic when he took the stage. He mixed in older songs like "Sitting, Waiting, Wishing" and "Banana Pancakes" with new material like "Radiate" and "Shot Reverse Shot." Lukas Nelson came out for "Flake" and a medley of "Whole Lotta Love" and "Staple It Together."
"It's my second year here," said Johnson. "I'm really happy to make it a tradition."
There was a big overlap between Johnson and Matthews fans. As always, Dave played an acoustic set with Tim Reynolds. It was a loose and powerful seven-song set highlighted by "#41," "Two Step" and "Save Me." "I like this room," said Matthews. "I like this roof. I like this lawn. It's nice to bring something I love to a place that I love." For those keeping track of such things, this was the first time that Dave and Tim ever played "If Only" as an acoustic duo.
John Mellencamp stuck almost entirely to his deep catalog of hits, opening with "The Authority Song. "I wrote this when I was 23," he said. "I still feel the same way now that I did then." "No One Cares About Me" was the sole selection from his last few albums. It was also the moment that the rain started coming down, making the rest of the night very uncomfortable for the thousands on the lawn.
"I wasn't going to play this next song," said Mellencamp after his large band left the stage. "But someone backstage told me that I just gotta do it." The opening lines of "Jack and Diane" sent shockwaves of joy through the crowd, and drunk middle-aged men put their arms around each other and screamed out "hold onto 16 as long as you can." It was oddly poignant, and the reaction seemed to stun even Mellencamp. "It amazes me this song has lasted so long," he said.
A solo acoustic "Small Town" also got a huge response, and then the band came back out for the inevitable "Rain on the Scarecrow." It's hard to say for sure, but he's probably played this at every single Farm Aid. It's essentially the official anthem of the event. Sadly, the lyrics remain disturbingly topical nearly 30 years after it was written. "Paper in Fire," "Crumblin' Down" and "Pink Houses" turned the entire amphitheatre into a giant party, and Mellencamp was clearly having a blast. Somehow or other, a lifetime of chain-smoking cigarettes hasn't done much to hurt his voice. (The same goes for Willie Nelson, but he's usually smoking something else.)
Mellencamp is a born crowd-pleaser, but Neil Young has a different agenda. He made that very clear when a heckler attempted to interrupt his speech about the importance of switching from gasoline to biofuels. "Did I hear someone say 'come on, let's go?'" he said. "I work for me." Those four words essentially sum up Neil Young's entire career, and his seven-song set was solid proof that he has little regard for expectations.
A run of the show provided to the media shows that the crew was instructed to put microphones for Dave Matthews, Pegi Young and John Mellencamp on the stage in addition to amps for Willie Nelson and Mickey Raphael. A second microphone was visible, but Neil ultimately decided to play the entire 30-minute set solo acoustic. He opened with Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and then went into Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain." He was introduced by John Mellencamp as "one of the greatest songwriters of his generation," and Neil seemed determined to prove he had a lot of competition for that title.
With the exception of quick run-throughs of "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold," Young's entire set was devoted to songs by Young's favorite songwriters. He had never played any of the songs publicly besides "Blowin' in the Wind." Virtually nobody recognized Ivory Joe Hunter's "Since I Met You Baby" or "Changes" by Phil Ochs." Thanks to the famous cover by Rod Stewart, most everyone knew Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe." Young played an absolutely stellar version of the tune on the organ, though he nearly abandoned the effort after the first few lines.
Clearly a little flustered by the song, he stood up after the initial attempt and returned to his ongoing rant about biofuels and fracking. "Colorado could be heading down the highway towards Albany," he said. "If you don't believe me, you're living in denial." He then returned to the organ and finished the song.
Before ending the set with Ochs' "Changes," Young said that he spoke backstage with Pete Seeger about the troubled Sixties protest singer. Seeger regretted not doing more to help Ochs before he committed suicide in 1976, and Young argued that there was little he could have done, comparing it to his efforts to contact Kurt Cobain in his last days. "Phil Ochs was one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived," said Young. "He wrote this next song, which some of you have probably never heard." Young almost always plays "Homegrown" at Farm Aid, but this year he had other things on his mind.
Per tradition, the show ended with Willie Nelson. Lukas Nelson sat in for the entire set, and they ran through classics like "Crazy" and "Whiskey River," though the highlight was a duet between the father and son on Eddie Vedder's "Just Breathe." They ended with "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" and "I Saw the Light," featuring nearly every performer of the night. The crowd screamed for more, but after a round of hugs, everyone left the stage and the P.A. played the Band's version of "I Shall Be Released."
It was pouring rain by this point, but a shockingly high percentage of the crowd remained on their soggy corner of the lawn until the very end. Nobody seemed the least bit unhappy with the experience as they trudged to their cars across puddles and mud.