Neil Young's name may have been on the bill for this year's Farm Aid, but until he walked onstage at the KeyBank Pavilion in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania it was impossible to know for sure if he'd even make it. The man hasn't missed a single Farm Aid since the original event back in 1985 and he even sits on the board, but this is also the same year he cancelled a festival appearance in Australia, bailed on a tour of South America and Japan he announced in a 2016 press release, pulled out of his commitment to induct Pearl Jam into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame citing illness and put the Bridge School Benefit on hold, possibly forever. Outside of a brief, impromptu harmonica jam with Willie Nelson at Stagecoach back in April, he hadn't stepped foot on a stage the entire year and has a completely blank public calendar for the foreseeable future.
But not only did he show up at Farm Aid, he came roaring onto the stage like a feral beast finally let out of his cage and delivered a 45-minute set of unbelievable passion and energy that should completely put to bed any notion that he’s still battling whatever illness caused him to pull out of the Hall of Fame. Backed by Promise of the Real (who he first met at Farm Aid in 2014 and has used as his primary backing band ever since), he completely ignored the new album they just recorded, along with his entire catalog of the past 27 years, and played a set that was nothing but the classics.
"Thanks for coming to Farm Aid," he said in the only moment of the set where he paused long enough to speak. "I hope you know that you’re doing a lot of good here with that money. We use that for good things. Farmers are the American heroes today. They are doing something with their hands that they’re sharing with their neighbors and their friends and families. We appreciate it."
He opened up with a blistering "Fuckin' Up" that lead right into a hypnotic "Cortez The Killer" that stretched out to nearly eleven minutes. He didn't even sing a note of it until four and a half minutes in as he built up a haunting intro on his battered guitar Old Black, grinned from ear to ear and reveled in the effortless interplay he's developed with guitarists Lukas and Micah Nelson. Near the end, he seemed to remember he had a ticking clock and he quickly wrapped it up and called out for "Cinnamon Girl," forcing the band to scramble for the right instruments as he pounded out the opening chords.
Young then strapped on a harmonica and acoustic guitar for singalong renditions of "Human Highway," "Heart of Gold" and "Comes a Time," before seeming to again call an audible, this time for "Like a Hurricane." It didn't give Micah enough time to get behind the keyboard for the intro, but once the band locked in it almost felt like Crazy Horse was on the stage. By this point, the crowd was in a state of complete hysteria, which only got crazier when Young mouthed the words "Rockin' In The Free World" to the band and they kicked into it Ramones-style, not pausing for even a split second after the abbreviated end to "Like a Hurricane." They had a bit over four minutes on the clock, not giving them enough time to even get to the third verse, but Young milked what time he had for everything it was worth. Somehow or another, he managed to cram a three-hour Neil Young concert into 45 minutes that will surely go down as one of the greatest sets in Farm Aid history.
But even if Young hadn't shown up, the capacity crowd at the outdoor amphitheater would have still seen an amazing day of music. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real played tunes from their new self-titled LP, including the sorrowful "Forget About Georgia," which was inspired by a girlfriend named Georgia that Nelson just couldn't get out of his mind. (Playing "Georgia On My Mind" was his father Willie night after night didn't make the situation easier.)
Farm Aid stalwart Jamey Johnson covered Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," the Band's "Up On Cripple Creek" and Jerry Reed's "Eastbound and Down." Incredibly, it was his tenth straight year on the Farm Aid stage. They should start thinking about making him a member of the board.
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats got the crowd dancing in the aisles to their 2015 breakthrough hit "S.O.B," the Avett Brothers broke out their rarely-played cover of "Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel" by 19th century minstrel performer Dan Emmett and Jack Johnson decided to make his set a communal experience by inviting out Sheryl Crow, Nathaniel Rateliff and Jamey Johnson for Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." Johnson opened his set with "Willie Got Me Stoned and Stole All My Money," a hysterical account of smoking up with Willie Nelson at a backstage Farm Aid poker game a couple of years ago. "I was 50 dollars up and then my mind went funny," Johnson sang. "It didn't really help that I didn't know the rules of the game/And it probably didn't help that I can't remember my name."
At her first Farm Aid in thirteen years, Sheryl Crow concentrated on trusted hits like "Everyday Is a Winding Road" and "My Favorite Mistake" before inviting out Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson, Jack Johnson and Margo Price for "Midnight Rider" as a tribute to the late Gregg Allman. Her brief foray into the world of country may not have generated any big hits, but she fits seamlessly into this world and remains a stellar performer.
The presence of Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds on the bill surely helped the 23,000-seat shed sell every single ticket, and they did not disappoint the faithful with their seven-song set of favorites like "Don't Drink The Water," "Warehouse" and "Crush." The only surprise came halfway through when they debuted a new tune titled "Odds Are Against Us" that Matthews said he just taught to Reynolds backstage before the show.
John Mellencamp also focused on his hits, though the audience was so eager to get to the "oh yeah, life goes on" part of "Jack and Diane" that they sang it in unison way early, causing Mellencamp to stop the song and gently admonish them. His new Black Lives Matter song "Easy Target" may have gotten a somewhat muted response, but everyone was gleefully back on board for "Rain on the Scarecrow" (the unofficial anthem of Farm Aid), "Crumblin' Down" and the inevitable "Pink Houses" finale.
After Neil Young's blazing performance, Willie Nelson quieted things down with standards like "Whiskey River" and "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" before inviting you nearly everyone from the stage for "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" and "Will The Circle Be Unbroken." Somewhere way in the back of the stage, Young was singing and clapping along. It's unclear if he plans on returning to the road next year, but if not he'll surely be at Farm Aid 2018. Unless he brings Crazy Horse, it'll be very hard for him to top this one.