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.
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