It’s been 29 years since Bob Dylan’s offhanded comments about the plight of the American farmer at Live Aid sparked the inaugural Farm Aid concert, and in that time other music-based charity efforts like Self Aid, NetAid, Band Aid, Hear ‘n Aid, Hands Across America, Live 8 and Live Earth have faded into the distant corners of our memory banks. Meanwhile, Farm Aid continues to grow and prosper, holding massive all-star shows every year and raising millions and millions for struggling family farms.
This year’s event was held at the Walnut Creek Ampitheater in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was a 10-hour concert (some of which was broadcast online) featuring performances by Farm Aid board members Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews in addition to Jack White, Gary Clark Jr, Jamey Johnson, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Delta Rae, Todd Snider and many others. Weather forecasters predicted heavy thunderstorms throughout the day, but it stayed remarkably dry with the exception of a brief downpour during Johnson’s set. Here’s a breakdown of the 10 best moments from the show.
Willie’s Family Brings Back The 1980s
After opening comments by Willie Nelson and a reading of the Lord’s Prayer, the day began with brief set by the country legend’s granddaughter Raelyn Nelson, who instantly won over the crowd with her countrified take on Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” A few hours later, Willie’s son Lukas and his group Promise of the Real broke out an amazing, jammed-out cover of Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” It’s a tough song to cover, but the guitar wiz and his band managed to completely make it their own.
Jack White Breaks Out White Stripes Set
Jack White had by far the most elaborate set, with his uniformed road crew setting up a meticulous set including vintage TV, before he took the stage, kicking into the manic riff of “Icky Thump.” The energy never faltered, White frequently ordering band members to switch instruments and stand in certain places while and road crew members ran on and off handing off equipment. White sported an “undercut,” his new hair style that looks like a cross between Skrillex and Elvis, which he routinely combed back in the mirror onstage. Seven of his 10 songs were White Stripes – including their first album stomper “Cannon” and a fiery “Ball and Biscuit.” White noted he lives on the same street where his hero Hank Williams Sr. once lived, and played “You Know That I Know,” which he wrote drawing from lost Williams lyrics. He finished off with “Seven Nation Army,” at one point singing over nothing but the audience’s chant. It was a blast, even if it did feel like a very condensed version of the other festival sets he’s played this year, from Bonnaroo to Governor’s Ball.
Neil Young Digs Deep
When Neil Young began his solo acoustic set with “Heart of Gold,” it seemed like he was going to treat the capacity crowd to his greatest hits, but he quickly veered off course and delighted the hardcores with a gorgeous, delicate rendition of “Pocahontas” from Rust Never Sleeps, the 2001 super obscurity “Standing in the Light of Love” and his brand new protest anthem “Who’s Gonna Stand Up and Save the Earth.” Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael accompanied him on “Mother Earth,” which Young played on the organ. He’s played the environmental plea at countless Farm Aid’s in the past, but its rarely sounded this chilling. In typical Young fashion, there were pianos set up on both ends of the stage that he never touched. He likes to keep his options open.
Jamey Johnson Gets a Nod From Neil
After an introduction that noted his long service in the U.S. marine corps, Jamey Johnson strapped on his beat-up Epiphone acoustic in a SUPPORT LOCAL FOOD T-shirt and, in his unmistakable gruff croon, kicked into his slow, spaced-out take of Hank Cochran’s “I Fall to Pieces.” “There was a time when all the farmer had to worry about was whether it would rain this year,” Johnson said afterward, before “You Can’t Cash My Checks.” “Now they have to worry about the loan they would get if it did rain.” He invited his vocal coach, “vocal coach for the last 39 years, Howard Johnson (he also happens to be Jamey’s father) for a moving “In Color,” as Neil Young watched side stage with a backwards hat on, arms folded, nodding along. He wrapped with a loose, swaggering take on George Strait’s “Give It Away.” Johnson’s quick set was a reminder of how much he’s missed – it’s been four years since his last album of original material. “Well, I wish I could tell you that I am writing. I’m not,” he told RS last year. “I feel pretty used by the music industry, in that my contracts are written in such a way that I don’t get paid.”
Meet the Nelson Family
“Now that’s the best,” Willie Nelson told RS recently while discussing what it’s like to play music with his sons, Lukas and Micah. “They’re just really good musicians.” This year’s Farm Aid often felt like a family reunion for the Nelson family, and proof of how varied the musical blood runs; Willie’s granddaughter Raelyn Nelson began the day with a punky, high-energy set including a surprise cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Van Lear Rose” (though it would have been cool of Jack White reprise his verses from the original recording). Micah Nelson soon took the stage with his psych-folk act Insects vs. Robots, leading epic time-shifting prog jams as guitarist Milo Gonzalez performed back-bending contortion moves. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real later won over the crowd with a fuzzed-out blues blast; Lukas at one paid tribute to his dad with highly-charged “Bloody Mary Morning” before an epic guitar excursion that referenced his dad’s cover of Bob Wills’ “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer).” “Lukas is a good songwriter, good singer picker, triple threat,” says Willie. “He puts on a good show, and has a great band!”
Mellencamp Previews His Upcoming Tour
In late January, John Mellencamp is kicking off a grueling 80-date North America tour to support his new LP Plain Spoken. Backed by his longtime touring band, Mellencamp previewed the trek by opening with a pair of new cuts: “Lawless Times” and “Troubled Man.” Just when it seemed like he was losing the crowd with the unfamiliar tunes, he kicked off a string of eight consecutive 1980s hits with “Check It Out.” A solo acoustic “Jack and Diane” had the entire place screaming along to every word, and the crowd cracked up when he modified the lyrics of “Small Town” to address his two divorces since he wrote the song. Midway through, he blasted through a powerful rendition of “Rain on the Scarecrow” that summed up the Farm Aid cause better than any speech he could have possibly delivered.
Neil Gets Political, Names Names
Most performers briefly voiced their support for farmers at some point during the set, but Young was the only one to get intensely political and call out specific corporations and politicians by name. “We’re up against a massive conspiracy,” he said. “And a government controlled by corporations. Your senator, Senator [Richard] Burr is a big help in making sure that corporations control farming.” The mention of Burr’s name elicited a chorus of boos. “Take that booing to the voting booth next time you go,” Young said. “The only way we’re gonna change it is to go to the top and clean it up.” He later turned his attention towards the benefit of organic food. “The corporations are forcing our farmers to use pesticides,” he said. “They own a lot of the farmers’ land. They’re suppling seeds to the farmers from Monsanto, seeds that you have to use pesticides to get things out of.”
Todd Snider Mocks the Right
“He’s already got Willie’s buzzed look in his eyes,” laughed one concertgoer as Snider took the stage, looking a little disheveled, like he might’ve just rolled out of bed. Snider charmed the crowd with a hilarious and moving solo acoustic set including “Can’t Complain” and “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males.” “I’ll be sharing my opinions not because they’re right or they make sense,” he told the crowd before scoring big laughs: “I’ll be sharing them because they rhyme.” Snider has become a cult favorite over his two-decade career – it was nice to see him win over an amphitheater crowd.
Dave Matthews Unplugs
Dave Matthews Band have been on the road all summer, but Farm Aid was one of only a handful of times Dave has done an acoustic gig with guitarist Tim Reynolds in the past few years. Matthews was the only performer on the bill that could effortlessly fill the 20,000 seat amphitheater on his own and he drew the loudest and craziest response of any of the acts. His set focused largely on his 1990s work, breaking out classics like “Don’t Drink The Water,” “Dancing Nancies” and “Crush” for the euphoric crowd. He was also in a particularly silly mood, addressing the issue of the evening in a significantly less serious way than his buddy Neil Young. “I gotta tell you,” he said. “I love fresh tomatoes. I love fresh cucumbers. I like cheese. And I like fresh milk. I like coffee, and I like beer.” With that, he went into “Ants Marching” and the place went absolutely ballistic.
Willie’s Road Goes On Forever
Willie began the day singing the Lord’s Prayer to kick off the event; about 10 hours later, he was the last to play – an impressive endurance test for anyone, let alone an 81-year-old in the middle of a grueling tour. The inclusive family vibe of the day continued in Willie’s set; During “Whiskey River,” Lukas added tasteful licks front-and-center with Micah behind him on percussion. Willie then invited Gary Clark Jr., who played a loose, raw set earlier in the day, took a searing solo on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood.” He stayed on for the remainder of the set, taking cues on the fly from harmonica player Mickey Raphael; Willie was clearly impressed, grinning and nodding at Clark’s fiery licks during Tom T. Hall’s “Shoeshine Man.” Everyone, including Jamey Johnson and the Denise Alley Wisdom Dancers, who performed an Indian chant earlier in the day, headed out onstage for a bunch of sing-alongs including Willie’s “gospel number,” “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me (When I Die).”