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15 Best Things We Saw at Farm Aid 2015

Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Kacey Musgraves, Imagine Dragons and more acts who lit up Chicago for the event’s 30th anniversary

Farm Aid 30

Willie Nelson headlined the 30th anniversary of Farm Aid.

Gabriel Grams/Getty Images

For 30 years now, family farmers have had some of the biggest names in music in their corner. Yet, as the four most notable board members of Farm Aid — including founding members Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, as well as Dave Matthews —emphasized on Saturday morning in Chicago, kicking off the 30th anniversary rendition of the concert fundraiser with a educational press conference, their work is just getting started. "What we're fighting for is not only the health of our food but the health of our planet," Matthews told Rolling Stone backstage.

Farm Aid started as a one-off benefit concert, spearheaded by Nelson in 1985 to raise awareness and funds for endangered family farmers, long bullied by massive corporations and struggling to keep their land. The event, which repeat-performer Jack Johnson calls “a spiritual gathering,” has now blossomed into the longest-running concert for a cause in America; it has raised $48 million to date since its inception. "It's inspiring to see Neil Young and Willie out here getting fired up about this issue," Kacey Musgraves, who performed at her second-consecutive Farm Aid, told Rolling Stone. "It's total bullshit how our food is regulated in this industry. Clean, healthy food isn't a luxury. . . it's a right."

Sure, such fiery rhetoric finds its way into the world — especially when delivered by those with a platform, like big-time musicians. But it's undoubtedly the consistently top-notch musical performances every year at Farm Aid — both courtesy of the fest's founders and a slew of passionate performers, including Old Crowe Medicine Show, whose singer Ketch Secor said his band would "jump through rings of fire to do anything Willie asked us to do" — that keeps the conversation alive. On Saturday, in addition to sets from Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and Matthews, a stacked lineup of diverse performers were also on hand — from Musgraves and Jack Johnson to Imagine Dragons and Mavis Staples — to celebrate and champion the cause. We look back at some of the highlights from the jam-packed, momentous day.

John Mellencamp

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 19: John Mellencamp performs during Farm Aid 30 at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island on September 19, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Gabriel Grams/Getty Images)

Gabriel Grams/Getty Images

Best Blue Collar Spirit: John Mellencamp

John Mellencamp has always seemed to relate to the average Joe American. Maybe it's his small-town roots or down-home upbringing, but the Indiana rocker is a blue-collar worker at heart. To that end, he has and continues to perfectly embody the Farm Aid spirit. "Can't trust the police/With their guns or their nights/My, my these are lawless times," he intoned with a cigarette-stained growl on his set-opening "Lawless Times." Hits like "Small Town" and "Pink Houses," both unleashed at Farm Aid, may have a more upbeat sentiment, but Mellencamp is no naïve fool. As the man dressed in black professed on the Farm Aid-appropriate "Rain on the Scarecrow:" "This land fed a nation this land made me proud/And son I'm just sorry there's no legacy for you now." Dan Hyman

Mavis Staples

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 19: Mavis Staples performs during Farm Aid 30 at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island on September 19, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Gabriel Grams/Getty Images)

Gabriel Grams/Getty Images

Best Show for Youngsters to See How It’s Done: Mavis Staples

At 75, Mavis Staples has been using her music as a vehicle for change for decades now. "I look at Farm Aid as like what I try to do for people through my songs," Staples, who grew up on her grandmother's farm in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, told Rolling Stone backstage before her early-evening set. "To help somebody!" And boy, does Staples still have the passion to get her message across: It took no more than 10 minutes into her set before a previously mellow crowd was suddenly on fire, joining the soul-singing legend in renditions of Staples Singers' classics like "I'll Take You There" and "Freedom Highway," the latter with the growling Staples repeatedly declaring, "March each and every day/Made up my mind and I won't turn around" with the same fervor as her civil-rights activist younger self. D.H.

Dave Matthews

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 19: Dave Matthews performs during Farm Aid 30 at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island on September 19, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Gabriel Grams/Getty Images)

Gabriel Grams/Getty Images

Best Example of “Less Is More”: Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds

When touring with his band, Dave Matthews often can't help but steal the spotlight, whether he's scatting, doing his famous little shuffle or belting out massive vocal runs. Playing at Farm Aid though, with nothing more than a pair of acoustic guitars and his longtime friend and musical partner, Tim Reynolds, by his side, Matthews was able to breathe deep, ease off the gas and let his tried-and-true songwriting do the heavy lifting. "When we play together it almost makes no difference what I do," Matthews told Rolling Stone backstage beforehand. "With Tim it's sort of like I'm being carried." On Saturday, longtime crowd pleasers like "What Would You Say" and "Satellite" were injected with a more forceful immediacy, Reynolds dashing off spiky licks when closing out "Crush." The highlight? The spare "So Damn Lucky," Matthews' chiming chords and inimitable vocals ringing out into the cool evening air. D.H.

Kacey Musgraves

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 19: Kacey Musgraves performs during Farm Aid 30 at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island on September 19, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Gabriel Grams/Getty Images)

Gabriel Grams/Getty Images

Best Ironic Wardrobe: Kacey Musgraves

Kacey Musgraves' most affecting songs, like the young Texan's breakout hit "Merry 'Go Round" — or the majority of her recent Pageant Material LP, for that matter — flip stereotypes on their ass. She may play the part of the down-home country girl when appropriate, but there's fire in this gal's belly. Seeing her sport a frilly, baby blue prom-like dress in front of a backing band in bright pink Nudie suits was only too fitting: She baited the Farm Aid crowd into thinking she was an innocent lady before belting out the truth. "I ain't pageant material/I'm always higher than my hair," she sang when performing her new LP's title track, smirking extra wide before closing out her breezy afternoon set with a foot-stomping take on Nancy Sinatra's outta-my-way-silly-boy anthem, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin.'" D.H.

Neil Young

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 19: Neil Young performs during Farm Aid 30 at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island on September 19, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Gabriel Grams/Getty Images)

Gabriel Grams/Getty Images

Best Farm Aid Pamphlet Set to Song: Neil Young

To really get at the heart of what Farm Aid is all about you could visit the Farm Aid website, peruse their literature, or chat up a farmer. You could also become quite knowledgeable just by listening to Neil Young's impassioned and informative performance from this year's event. Young bypassed decades of well-known hits to frontload his set with a trio of snarled protests songs from The Monsanto Years to address, among other things, Monsanto, GMOs, Starbucks, Walmart, big box stores, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and "fascists politicians and chemical giants walking arm in arm." He even debuted a brand new song called 'I Won't Quit" that contained lines like "I won't quit fighting for the farmer" sung in such a way that it gave you know choice but to wholly-heartedly believe him.

Showing his kinship to the cause is certainly not a new thing, Young rounded out his appearance with two Nineties-era Crazy Horse tracks ("Western Hero" and "Love and Only Love'), as well as "Alabama" from his classic 1972 album Harvest. The legend was backed by Promise of the Real (including Willie Nelson's sons, Lukas and Micah) for the incendiary seven-song set that was electrified by his scathing vocal delivery, a thundering rhythm section and a flurry of fiery guitar work. Will Hodge

Farm Aid

Apprentices Eric Hussey, left, and Christopher Braun weed a kale garden and thin lettuce plants on the rooftop garden of McCormick Place west in Chicago on June 2, 2015. The McCormick Place Garden is managed by Windy City Harvest, a sustainable agriculture program out of the Chicago Botanic Garden's Urban Agricultural Department. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Best Chicago-Style Farming Method: Urban Rooftop Farming

Although Farm Aid hosts an impressive roster of musical artists each year, the festival is much more than just a concert. From their Homegrown concessions serving organic, locally-grown foods, to the Homegrown Village where dozen of booths were set up to engage with and learn more about food and farm practices, Farm Aid is designed to educate as much as it entertains.

With this year's event being held in downtown Chicago, one of the more interesting practices showcased was urban rooftop farming. Darius Jones from Chicago Botanic Gardens spoke to Rolling Stone and outlined some of the unique issues that the sustainable urban agriculture program encounters. "Logistics are everything," he explained. "For example, you can't just use normal compost because it gets too heavy and there's also a huge micro-climate that has to be maintained on a roof." However, Jones and other rooftop farmers like him have been able to make urban rooftop farming a reality. He currently works the Midwest's largest rooftop farm atop McCormick Place (pictured above), the largest convention center in North America. W.H.

Jack Johnson

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 19: Jack Johnson performs during Farm Aid 30 at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island on September 19, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Gabriel Grams/Getty Images)

Gabriel Grams/Getty Images

Best All-Ages Dance Party: Jack Johnson

Returning to the Farm Aid stage for his third year, Jack Johnson delighted the early evening crowd with his relaxed folk-rock flavors. Backed by his brilliant piano-bass-drums trio, the singer-songwriter handled all of the acoustic and electric guitar work, while simultaneously delivering his vocals with a seemingly effortless cool. Fan favorites like "Taylor," "Flake," "Banana Pancakes," and his "Bubble Toes"/"Not Fade Away" mash-up had the majority of the crowd on their feet and dancing along. Johnson even had everyone moving to a brand-new, venue-appropriate song he had just written the day before called "Willie Got Me Stoned and Stole All My Money." There's no denying the accessible funkiness and all-ages fun of his music when you see the physical effects it elicits in grandmas, grandkids, and everyone in between. W.H.

Willie Nelson

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 19: Willie Nelson performs during Farm Aid 30 at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island on September 19, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Gabriel Grams/Getty Images)

Gabriel Grams/Getty Images

Best Gospel and Ganja: Willie Nelson

Farm Aid president and founder Willie Nelson closed the day's festivities in style with a collection of feel-good favorites done as only he can do them. The country icon started off with the you-know-it's-coming-but-it-still-sounds-so-good opener, "Whiskey River," and then crooned a couple of Trigger-led staples like "Still is Still Moving to Me," "Beer for My Horses," a seamless "Funny How Time Slips Away/"Crazy"/"Night Life" medley, and a version of "Good Hearted Woman" that was introduced with a touching, "Let's do one for Waylon."

However, it seemed the most "Willie-fied" moment of the evening came with his closing five numbers, a thematic selection of songs devoted to two of his favorite things: gospel music and weed. The hymns-and-hemp assemblage started off with a spirited blending of 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "I'll Fly Away" that invited all of the day's artists back out on stage for the five-song finale. Nelson then launched into "It's All Going to Pot," his duet with Merle Haggard that was released earlier this year (on April 20th, of course), followed by "Family Bible" with additional four-part harmonies from the festival's openers, the Blackwood Quartet. After announcing, "Here's another gospel song I wrote," Nelson grinned his way through "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" from 2012 (also released on April 20th, of course). After a few parting words of appreciation, the legend closed his set (and the festival) with an energetic take on the Hank Williams classic, "I Saw The Light." A quick scan of the audience's faces (as well as most of the audience's pupils) showed that Nelson managed to make sure that everyone ended the day on a high note. W.H.

Imagine Dragons

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 19: Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons performs onstage during Farm Aid 30 at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island on September 19, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Gabriel Grams/Getty Images)

Gabriel Grams/Getty Images

Best Sundown Singalong: Imagine Dragons

As the sun started to descend over the iconic Chicago skyline, Imagine Dragons brought their cinematic pop rock swagger to Farm Aid's stage. Amidst the percussive thump of "On Top of the World," the funky-to-crushing guitar-bass interplay of "I'm So Sorry," and the stage-can't-contain-me front row ramblings of lead singer Dan Reynolds on "It's Time," the band interjected a surprisingly straight-laced cover of Tom Petty's "I Wont Back Down" into their set list. The smart cover song choice charmed the already-hanging-on-every-note crowd even more, resulting in an enthusiastic audience sing-along that perfectly punctuated their inaugural Farm Aid performance. W.H.

Micah Nelson

Best Jimmy Page Impersonation: Micah Nelson

Micah Nelson was quite a busy man on Saturday as he fronted his own band Insects vs Robots earlier in the day and then played a variety of instruments backing his father and Neil Young for their late-night sets, as well. It was during Young's blistering performance that the younger Nelson embodied "Dazed and Confused"-era Jimmy Page by using a violin bow to play his electric guitar. Sawing away during Young's "Big Box," Nelson was just shy a bedazzled pair of bell-bottoms and a couple of bow points to the crowd from fully pulling off the Led Zeppelin guitarist's guise. W.H.

Holly Williams

Holly Williams performs at Farm Aid 30 at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island on Saturday, September 19, 2015, in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP)

Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP

Best Stage-to-Backporch Transformation: Holly Williams

With a chic denim-on-denim ensemble that rivaled the clear blue sky of her early afternoon performance, singer-songwriter Holly Williams looked every bit the part of a traveling troubadour for her first Farm Aid appearance. Flanked by an upright bassist and husband Chris Coleman on acoustic guitar, Williams crafted a beautifully uncluttered run-through of songs from her most recent album, The Highway. The acoustic trio brought a warm authenticity to the stage that made their short-but-sweet set feel less like a festival show and more like a living room performance. Williams used short storytelling song introductions to engage the audience and they receptively responded back to her in turn after her heart-stirring closer, "Waitin' on June." W.H.

Old Crow Medicine Show

Critter Fuqua of Old Crow Medicine Show performs at Farm Aid 30 at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island on Saturday, September 19, 2015, in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP)

Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP

Best Use of Special Guests: Old Crow Medicine Show

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more talented and energetic string band than Old Crow Medicine Show. Not only did they woo the Farm Aid crowd with the country-folk shuffle of "Take 'Em Away" and "Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer," along with the off-the-rails romp of "8 Dogs 8 Banjos" and "Alabama High Test," but they know how to make great use of a festival full of talented musicians, as well. The Grammy-winning Grand Ole Opry members welcomed 30-year Farm Aid veteran David Amram on stage to join them for "I Hear Them All"/"This Land Is Your Land" and invited the legendary Mickey Raphael to play harmonica on a cover of Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans" and their signature sing-along "Wagon Wheel." W.H.

Insects vs. Robots

Micah Nelson of Insect vs Robots performs at Farm Aid 30 at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island on Saturday, September 19, 2015, in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP)

Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP

Best Fish Out of Water: Insects vs. Robots

Were it not for this being the third year in a row that Insects vs Robots have descended upon the Farm Aid stage, the self-described "psych-punk-orchestra" may have caused some festival attendees to momentarily scratch their heads during the band's eclectic set. Sure, there was a little harmonica and fiddle sprinkled in, but the trippy song structures, surrealist lyrics, heavy percussive elements, and jazzy, improvisational guitar lines may have been a bit disarming to some. Led by Willie Nelson's multi-talented son, Micah, the band won the early crowd over with their experimental spirit and youthful enthusiasm. W.H.

Jamey Johnson

NASHVILLE, TN - JULY 29: Singer/Songwriter Jamey Johnson performs during "Songwriters 4 Songwriters" Inaugural fundraiser benefiting The Pen Fund at 3rd & Lindsley on July 29, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Best Rebel With a Cause: Jamey Johnson

It's no secret Jamey Johnson plays by his own rules: from forming his own record label to releasing new material at a snail's pace, the man behind 2010's fantastic The Guitar Song has taken up the outlaw spirit first embodied by the Willies and Waylons. Johnson's rebel spirit was on full display at Farm Aid 30: The bearded singer flipped the bird at Music Row with a set-opening cover of Nelson's biting "Write Your Own Songs." "Mr. Purified Country, don't you know what the whole things about/Is your head up your ass so far that you can't pull it out?," he snarled before running through a mellow, cover-heavy set that included a pensive take on Hank Williams, Jr.'s "Wild and Blue" and a sing-along spin on Waylon Jenning's "This Land Is Your Land." D.H.

Farm Aid

Matt Cowan/Getty Images

Best Farm Aid Accessory Combo: Boot and Bandanas

While most festivals don't come with a dress code, there are always certain fashion choices that seem to hallmark a few of them, and Farm Aid was no exception. From the attendees to the volunteers to the bands on stage, there seemed to be a head-to-toe mandate of boots and bandanas for every third person you encountered.

While the accessorized combo might be somewhat expected at a festival that celebrates farmers and rural America, what was most surprising was the pairing of one or both adornments with contradictory accoutrement. We're talking cowboy boots with running shorts and an American flag bandana acting as a pocket square for a three-piece suit. Whatever the fashion flavor, everyone seemed to pull it off in style. When Kacey Musgraves (wearing both a neckerchief and boots) led her band through a slinky cover of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'," there was no question that the majority of the audience was happily dressed for the occasion. W.H.