After performing a sublime version of "Harvest Moon" under a brilliant harvest moon Saturday night, Neil Young addressed a field of 23,000 concertgoers, plus several million Country Music Television viewers: "Call 1-800 FARM AID," he ordered. "Send us some money. We need some money to fight the battle . . . to save our traditional way of life."
Young and his Farm Aid co-founders Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, as well as new board member Dave Matthews, headlined an eleven-hour performance at the Post-Gazette Pavilion in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, to drive home the same message Farm Aid has been spreading since it began seventeen years ago: By supporting family farmers, Americans can eat healthier food, thwart the domination of agri-business and stave off developers' bulldozers.
The day was filled with performers who expressed their pleasure at being able to help the cause. Detroit native Kid Rock ripped up the sold-out house, besting Mellencamp for the most energized set of the show. Starting with "Fire Down Below," a nod to fellow Motowner Bob Seger, he also delivered what might have been Farm Aid's first-ever crotch grab, his rhinestoned American flag buckle shining against the giant stage backdrop of stars, stripes and silhouetted tractor images. During his balls-out rendition of "Cowboy," he also referenced the Allman Brothers classic "Midnight Rider" and Waylon Jennings' "Theme From 'The Dukes of Hazzard' (Good Ol' Boys)." Rock also performed a credible duet with big-voiced country singer Allison Moorer on "Picture," which they hope to release as a single.
"Someone said the country crowd might be a little mellow for Kid Rock . . . I seriously doubt that bullshit," he sneered before leaping into the testosterone-injected "Bawitdaba." Rock encapsulated the independent, status-quo-flouting spirit of the day far better than country stars Keith Urban and Toby Keith.
Prettyboy Urban struck a lot of rock star poses, and quoted "Day Tripper" in "Where the Blacktop Ends," but also offered a heartfelt solo acoustic tune, "Song for Dad," which he dedicated to his father. Keith, who stuck around after headlining a sold-out pavilion show the night before, opened with a deceptively pretty folk tune about a cave-dwelling Taliban couple and ended with his warmongering hit "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." He managed to earn a few points with the pacifists by proffering a hilarious ode to Nelson's legendary pot-smoking habits, complete with sly plug for Willie's new legally intoxicating product: Old Whiskey River bourbon. Nelson was invited onstage for the serenade, then duetted with Keith on "Whiskey for My Men and Beer for My Horses."
Nelson's first appearance actually came during Lee Ann Womack's opening set. They performed "Mendocino County Line" from his The Great Divide. His third was to accompany Young on "Comes a Time" and "Sugar Mountain." But this Farm Aid seemed unusual for its lack of interaction among the principal players; Nelson and Rock skipped their own duet from Great Divide, "Last Stand in the Open Country." There was to be a "Founding Fathers" quartet performance at the 5 p.m. start of CMT's broadcast, but it never happened. Matthews' solo set ended with "All Along the Watchtower" -- which cried out for Young's presence to re-create the unforgettable acoustic duet they delivered at Farm Aid '99 on what's now a signature tune for both. Introducing it, Matthews said, "This is a song that maybe I do too often, but I like it, so fuck it."
Matthews began his set with a gentle "Where Are You Going," "Crush" and "Bartender," on which his sweet, pure falsetto sounded like a young castrati. He also played delicate versions of "Grace Is Gone," "Dancing Nancies," "Too Much" and the still unrecorded ("but some of y'all probably have it on tape") "Gravedigger." Matthews addressed the day's topic by pronouncing, "Good food is good. Bad food is bad." Later, in a Cookie-Monsterish voice, he repeated, "Eat good food."
Mellencamp came out smoking a not-exactly-wholesome cigarette, and got right down to business with "Rain on the Scarecrow." His greatest hits set included "Peaceful World, "Paper in Fire," "Crumblin' Down" (on which he dipped violinist Miriam Sturm nearly to the stage floor), a stripped-down "Small Town," the Robert Johnson tune "Stones in my Passway" (it could have been titled "Gravel in My Throat" for his damaged-sounding voice), and of course, "Pink Houses," which featured Appalachian folk throwback Gillian Welch in an unexpectedly funky moment.
Earlier in the day, the Skynyrd-loving -- and proud of it -- Drive-by Truckers played cuts from their Southern Rock Opera after opening with "Sinkhole," a tune inspired by a film about saving a family farm. They were followed by Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Double Trouble, with Doyle Bramhall II on vocals. Shepherd borrowed too liberally from his spiritual fathers, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix, but his ability to do so makes him a natural fit with Vaughan's old rhythm section.
Young, wearing his usual "Stop Factory Farms" T-shirt, came out shouting, "Attention shoppers! Attention shoppers! Buy with a conscience and save the family farm." Though he interrupted his music frequently to tout the cause, his acoustic, organic set was still the show's most mesmerizing. It included "Old Man," "Heart of Gold," a moving "Mother Earth" performed on pipe organ, and his updated "After the Gold Rush," with the lyric, "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the twenty-first century." Nelson's harp player, Mickey Raphael, was onstage for most of the set, and on "Comes a Time," they were joined by several American Indians who stomped with Young as he performed his lumbering bear dance.
Later, Young showed up for Nelson's rather surreal group-hug finale for the TV cameras, on which most of the secondary acts and none of the other main ones stood onstage for "America the Beautiful." Among them was broadcast host Matthew McConaughey, who seemed more in tune than Nelson as he boogie-woogied with abandon. Nelson stayed onstage another thirty-five minutes after the cameras clicked off, running through his sing-along standards and finishing, as he always does, with "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
That circle won't break anytime soon, and neither will the founders' commitment to their cause. They've vowed to carry on as long as there are farms to save.