Farm Aid 2016: 10 Best Things We Saw
"There's a revolution starting!" Neil Young told the crowd early on in his set at the 31st annual Farm Aid. "It's called eating good food that your neighbors made for you. … Let the earth bring us all together, back to the roots. Eat good food. You don't need the drugs anymore. It took us a long time to get this far. We have a long way to go. But with people like you, we're going to make it!"
The brief speech was one of the few moments during the 11-hour concert at Bristow, Virginia's Jiffy Lube Live that wasn't centered around music. The packed bill featured a mixture of young acts (Insects vs. Robots, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats), country stars (Jamey Johnson, Margo Price) and, as always, the four members of the Farm Aid board (Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Willie Nelson.) It was a lot to cram into a single day, but the stellar stage crew kept things moving like clockwork. When the schedule said that Margo Price would take the stage at 2:17 pm, that's exactly what happened. The fest was also blessed with a day of pristine weather that kept the capacity crowd in fine spirits and made for one of the most enjoyable Farm Aids in recent memory. Here are 10 of the best musical moments.
Willie Nelson and Star Swain Kick Things Off
As always, Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson was the first one on the stage. He delivered an a cappella rendition of "The Lord's Prayer" to a nearly empty amphitheater before handing the mic over to 34-year-old assistant principal Star Swain, whose rendition at the Lincoln Memorial became a viral sensation earlier this summer and led to a singing slot at the Democratic National Convention. The webcast hadn’t begun yet, but the few people that showed up right as the gates opened got an incredible treat, made all the more powerful by the complete lack of instrumentation.
The Next Generation Takes Over
The early part of the show was dominated by family members of the Farm Aid board. It began with John Mellencamp's nephew Ian Mellencamp (pictured), whose short set started with an solo electric take on ABBA's "Dancing Queen" before he was joined by a drummer for a handful of Black Keys–style tunes. Willie Nelson's son Micah (who claimed to be playing a guitar made entirely out of hemp) followed up with his eclectic band Insects vs. Robots, who played material from their new EP Stupid Dreams. His older brother Lukas’ band Promise of the Real took the stage afterwards. They're best known these days as Neil Young's backing group, but their own tunes "Ain't Gonna Die Alone" and "Carolina" soared without any help from "Uncle Neil."
Margo Price Gets Personal
Nashville's Margo Price was the first of many country stars to play the big stage, and she definitely deserved to be up there. "Farm Aid started in 1985," she said. "That happened to be the same year my family lost their farm." She then told the rest of the sad story with her "Me and Bobby McGee"–style song "Hands of Time." "Times they were tough growing up at home," she sang. "My daddy lost the farm when I was two years old/Took a job at the prison working second shift/And that's the last time I let them take what should be his."
Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss Cover Woody Guthrie
This year marked Jamey Johnson's ninth Farm Aid in under a decade, though he made this year unique by bringing along special guest Alison Krauss. Her violin and pristine harmonies were a great addition to his set, which peaked when they locked voices on Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." They sang the whole song, even the oft-skipped "private property" verse. That would have thrilled Pete Seeger, whose final major public appearance was at Farm Aid 2013, when he joined the entire board on that very song.
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats Honor the Band
Neo-soul singer Nathaniel Rateliff and his backing band the Night Sweats have played just about every festival in the world since their debut LP exploded late last year. They've become masters at commanding large audiences, and their killer set climaxed with their breakthrough hit "S.O.B." It's the sad tale of a hopeless drunk, and it transitioned right into a cover of the Band's "The Shape I'm In," which covers similar territory. Ratliff has the incredible power to turn desperation into joy, and were Band keyboardist/singer Richard Manuel still with us, he surely would have been honored to hear Rateliff do his song justice.
Alabama Shakes Gets the Crowd Shaking
The crowd at this year's Farm Aid was heavy on classic-rock and country fans, and it seemed like a decent chunk of them weren't familiar with Alabama Shakes when the band first took the stage. But most anyone that watches Brittany Howard and Co. perform for more than a minute becomes an instant convert. Howard worked the stage like a woman possessed, tearing through songs from both Alabama Shakes albums with an avalanche of passion. By the midpoint of the set, people were dancing in the aisles and screaming for more.
Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds Revisit the Nineties
Is there a twin-acoustic-guitar act that can drive a crowd into a state of euphoria quite like Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds? During their eight-song set, the two old friends sent ripples of joy across the entire amphitheater with every note they played. It helped they stuck largely to 1990s classics like "Crash Into Me," "Don't Drink the Water," "Two Step" and "Ants Marching." People of all ages sang along, from kids that weren't even close to being born when Under the Table and Dreaming came out to adults that were long past their frat days at the peak of DMB mania. He doesn't get much press these days, but Dave Matthews remains a powerful force in the concert biz. Had Farm Aid featured nothing but Dave and Tim playing for hours on end, it seemed like few in the crowd would have minded.
John Mellencamp Revisits the Eighties
When John Mellencamp's band came onstage in black-tie outfits and launched into 2014's "Lawless Times," it briefly seemed like this might not be your typical Mellencamp hits revue. But then "Small Town" came next and the show quickly became a 1980s sing-along with "Paper in Fire," "Check It Out," "Authority Song" and, of course, "Pink Houses." "Rain on the Scarecrow" began with a haunting violin/accordion intro. This song has probably been done at every Farm Aid since the very first one, but it never loses its power. It's basically the benefit's theme song, and sadly, it reminds all too relevant.
Neil Young Goes With the Hits
Neil Young is the one Farm Aid board member that always delivers an unpredictable set. Last year he tested the patience of the audience by playing unfamiliar new material like "Seed Justice" and "A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop." (He also did "Alabama" for the first time since 1977.) In 2013, his set was mainly covers. This time around, he opened with "Heart of Gold" and largely stuck to songs everyone knew, including "Harvest Moon" and "Out on the Weekend." He first played with Lukas and Micah Nelson at Farm Aid in 2014 and they've been his band ever since. Papa Willie came out for a duet of "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?" before Neil strapped on Old Black and led the band through ferocious renditions of "Powderfinger" and "Rockin' in the Free World," complete with three false endings. It was a mere tiny slice of the amazing shows they've been playing during the past couple of years. If they come anywhere near you, check them out. With the very large exception of Crazy Horse, this is one of the best bands he’s ever worked with.
Willie Nelson and Family Close out the Night
It's tough to come on after "Rockin' in the Free World," especially when you're facing an exhausted crowd eager to head toward the parking lot after a long day in the sun, but Willie was up for the task. Joined by Lukas, Micah and his standard road band, he managed to cram in 15 songs, barely pausing for a breath between them. Just when people were about to pack up and leave, he'd go into a tune like "Always on My Mind," "On the Road Again" or "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" that caused people to sit back down and wait until the end. The man is 83. He's got emphysema. He smokes weed all day and night. He's always on tour. But by some miracle, he's still got that powerful voice. He's used it to save countless family farms, spread awareness of their plight and raise millions of dollars for Farm Aid. There's no word on next year’s Farm Aid 32 yet, but Willie Nelson will certainly be around to close it out like he's been doing since day one.