Twenty thousand music fans and farmers showed up to the Walnut Creek Ampitheater in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Saturday for Farm Aid 2014, where organizers Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews were joined by an eclectic list of performers in the effort to support small family farms, locally and nationwide. Now in its 29th year, Farm Aid has evolved into much more than a yearly benefit concert, but rather a year-round support system for small farmers and nonprofit groups. Saturday’s festivities included a farming expo with seminars from and for local farmers, vendors and exhibitors, as well as food supplied by local family farms for the festival's Homegrown Concessions area. Many of the performers were deeply involved in the agricultural education element of the fest: Delta Rae’s Brittany Hölljes led a discussion about connections between urban and rural farms. NOLA's Preservation Hall Jazz band did a briefing on the similar issues facing fishers and farmers. Wandering around the grounds could lead one to a snap pea “shell-off,” a DIY pepper jelly session or to a tent where flower crowns were being woven. Workshops like “Sustainable Fishing 101” were available for those wanting to learn, and for the teenagers just wanting to get high and roll around in the grass, there was Dave Matthews. Here are some of our favorite moments from the big event.
Farm Aid kicked off Saturday with a pre-festival news conference, during which all of the performing artists, Farm Aid officials, farmers and activists gathered onstage to talk about the issues facing small farmers today. In perfect laymen's terms, Neil Young conveyed the impossible and ever-changing problems with which farmers are faced underneath the current corporate agricultural system. Then, with typical flare, he called North Carolina Senator Richard Burr to stand up, alongside his other Republican cronies, and be held accountable by his surrounding community of farmers for voting against efforts to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision allowing unlimited political donations — which are what, ultimately, steers the corporate agriculture herd. "We love doing Farm Aid, but we don't love that we're doing Farm Aid," Young said, gesturing towards his fellow board members, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews and the other advocates who have been around since the festival began in 1985. "This isn't a celebration; it's a mission," Young concluded, emphasizing that Farm Aid was there in support of the farmers, and that the music was just secondary.
"Gary Clark, Jr… Pretty sure he's reggae," said a puzzled drunk dude as he danced around with another drunk dude in matching cargo swim trunks, just 10 minutes prior to the blues guitar star taking the stage. Roaming around the well-kept grounds (when it wasn't raining) was an experience drenched with the feel of community, good vibes and small farmers taking a well-deserved day off from their 'steads to bask in the appreciation of their agricultural efforts by community members and farming advocates. Although Gary Clark Jr. was one of the only non-country/folk acts on the bill, his sticky blues grooves melted into heatwaves of Seventies soul and psychedelic sex to get the crowd lit as much (if not more) as any ol' reggae concert.
"There's a flood happening in Texas," joked Willie Nelson, announcing the Stevie Ray Vaughn cover of "Texas Flood" he was about to launch into with his son Lukas, right before Gary Clark Jr. strolled onstage and threw down the blues solo gauntlet. The repartee between the three transcended the generations and varied backgrounds of everyone onstage, including longtime harp man Mickey Raphael and veteran drummer Paul English, as well as Willie's sister and lifelong piano player Bobbie Nelson, (the only female in the ten-person ensemble). "Good Hearted Woman" in honor of Waylon Jennings was next, during which Willie's relaxed style of delivery proved (again), that he's still riding the chill wave harder than anyone.
Bathed in blue with slicked-back hair like an insomniac rockabilly zombie, Jack White and his current six-piece touring band were strictly-business with their tightly-wound renditions of “Lazaretto,” and straightforward White Stripes selections like "The Hardest Button to Button," "We’re Going To Be Friends,” and "Seven Nation Army.” Where does a fiddle fit in to any of this? Lillie Mae Risch answered this question many times over, especially on White’s newer solo material, adding brassy harmonies and a fiddle-fueled intro to "Temporary Ground” before enhancing the less fiddle-friendly heavy rockers like “High Ball Stepper" and "Ball and a Biscuit.”
Sundown and John Mellencamp's set time were one in the same, the time when everyone was several drinks in and soaked from the rain, humidity and twilight of heat-induced delirium. This may explain why the crowd behaved like a diverting, drunk donkey, plodding along towards a carrot of Cougar classics from the Seventies and Eighties, blindly passing by the adult-contempo Appalachian tracks from his new Plain Spoken album at the beginning of the set, too hungry to wait for the hits. The original video backdrop was hi-res green beans and towering silos before the band started churning out the classics like "Jack and Diane" and "Small Town." When the massive video screen suddenly transitioned to 20-foot-high flames against a black backdrop, the flame-broiled feel took us from a Seventies roadhouse vibe to a Burger King commercial, and everyone was instantly hungrier, sweatier, or more delirious. Things only got hotter when his high-spirited violin/fiddle player Miriam Sturm went toe-to-toe with Mellencamp on a rumbly rendition of "Pink Houses." All the world was right on the closer "Cherry Bomb," when the rock icon proclaimed, "You can dance your problems away," before doing a spry little soft-shoe routine across the stage, spurring everyone around to also attempt to dance their woes away.
Being the sons of a legendary performer like Willie Nelson holds full potential to be overshadowed onstage, but Nelson's sons Lukas and Micah seem to have settled into their roles as Family Band members and all-around utility players with ease. Micah's fusion of alt and indie rock with Insects vs. Robots played early, echoing In Rainbows era Radiohead, while Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real could be heard later in the afternoon, channeling the worldly sound of Paul Simon with a Texas twang. Where Micah was chill and opted to hop on brush snare (along with every other instrument onstage throughout the night), Lukas showboated around stage, glued to his electric guitar and masterfully coaxing out solos as naturally as the legends lined up alongside him. Neil Young called the boys up to join him in an acoustic trio closer of "Rockin' in the Free World" that convinced us they've both been graced with the same charisma and unique talents as their daddy.
"It fracking matters!" wrly quipped Neil Young during an acoustic rendition of his new politcally-charged song, "Who's Gonna Stand Up?". His musical ponderings paired nicely with his fiery comments from earlier that morning, opening with "Heart of Gold" (watch above), before making his way to "Comes a Time" and a few other familiar favorites. His mostly-solo-acoustic set was rife with environmentally themed tunes like "Pocahontas," "Angry World" and the stirring "Oh Mother Earth," gorgeously set to a tranquil arrangement of "The Water Is Wide" as Young played piano, washed in green and blue-hues while dueling harp solos floated over him.
A festival based around returning to our food roots and supporting small farms wouldn't be worth its salt without fresh, locally-sourced food offerings. Instead of funnel cakes and turkey shanks, there were donuts made with non-GMO batter and free-range chicken legs. For those whose stomachs couldn't handle an organic hot dog or a steaming dish of wild shrimp and grits, fresh local fruit and vegetable juices paired with seasonal salads lightened things up. And of course, being in North Carolina, craft brews and barbecue were a give-in, flaunting whole pasture-raised hogs and pulled pork sandwiches with slaw on the top.