15 Best Things We Saw at Farm Aid 2015 – Rolling Stone
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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.

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.

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