The heartland came east again this year as Farm Aid made its first foray into New England with an all-day blowout Saturday at Comcast Center in Mansfield, Mass. Now in its 23rd year, the pro-agrarian music fest featured headliners Dave Matthews, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson reeling off hits and old favorites while extolling the virtues of local family farms.
In his succinct way, Matthews put it best: "I like good food!" he exclaimed midway through an acoustic set with frequent collaborator Tim Reynolds on guitar. With 19 acts, including the Pretenders, Steve Earle, Jerry Lee Lewis and Jakob Dylan, set times were short. Still, Matthews had no trouble holding the audience's attention with mix of solo tunes, deeper cuts like "Corn Bread" and crowd pleasers "Crush" and "Ants Marching," which received the noisiest ovation of the day.
Mellencamp focused more on his hits, particularly the populist ones: "Pink Houses," "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Small Town," his portrait of life in small-town — and, by implication, farm-town — America. The Indiana singer, a Farm Aid mainstay since the beginning, recounted the organizers' "naive" hope that the first festival in 1985 would have been the only one necessary. That it wasn't, he said, reinforced the sentiment that inspired "Authority Song," which he played to end his eight-song set.
Young emphasized his more bucolic songs, too. "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere" followed opener "Love and Only Love." He plowed through "Back to the Country," "Oh Mother Earth" and "Powderfinger" before closing with a rootsy cover of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life."
Farm Aid patriarch Nelson hasn't changed his set much over the past 30 years, and "Whiskey River" soon led to the medley of "Funny How the Time Slips Away," "Crazy" and "Night Life." The singer also popped up on stage throughout the day, singing harmony on "The Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning" during Kenny Chesney's acoustic set and sitting in with Afro-funk band Nation Beat on "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" earlier in the afternoon.
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