Farm Aid 2014’s Biggest Surprises – Rolling Stone
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Farm Aid 2014’s 8 Biggest Surprises

From Neil Young’s tirade to Willie Nelson’s family affair, the most unexpected moments from the annual fundraiser

Farm Aid 2014

Farm Aid organizers Dave Matthews, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson

Raleigh News & Observer

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.

John Mellencamp at Farm Aid

John Mellencamp performs at Farm Aid 2014

Paul Natkin/WireImage

Best Use of Background Video Imagery

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.

Lukas Nelson

Lukas Nelson

Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images

Show-Stealing Sidemen

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.

Neil Young

Neil Young performs at Farm Aid

Ebet Roberts/RedFerns

Best Environmental-Themed Pun

"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.

Farm Aid

Farm Aid

Roger Kisby/Getty Images

Out With the Corn Dogs

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.