Getting 37,000 people to a remote, rural amphitheater in East Troy, Wisconsin, for Farm Aid isn’t hard when the bill features Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Luke Combs, Bonnie Raitt, John Mellencamp, and several other big names. Getting them to stay for 12 hours in a downpour that turned the packed lawn (where the vast majority of people sat) into a sea of mud is much harder. It required a pretty spectacular show, one that left people so stunned they stayed put hour after hour even though most of them couldn’t see the stage and had to watch the show on giant monitors while crammed up against soaked, mud-caked strangers.
Crowds began pouring into the Alpine Valley Music Theater at 11 a.m. on Saturday, armed with ponchos and boots to battle the fierce rainstorm everyone knew was coming. The music was certainly the main motivating factor, but Wisconsinites have also seen their dairy farms close at an alarming rate in recent years (638 shuttered in 2018 alone) and Farm Aid’s mission to save family farms is one they eagerly share.
“If you’re liking this show tonight, never drive by a farmer’s market again without stopping,” Neil Young told the crowd midway through his set. “We’ve been losing farms for too many years straight. It’s time for us to start going the other way. It’s really important for our planet because farmers are the protectors of the soil. They are the ones that are going to bring the regenerative practices back across this country and make it so obvious we have to do this.”
Young’s set was one of many spectacular musical moments throughout the long day. Here’s a look at 10 of them.
1. Neil Young Throws Curveballs
Five years ago, Young’s made the spontaneous decision to invite Lukas and Micah Nelson to perform “Rockin’ in the Free World” with him at Farm Aid in Raleigh, North Carolina. It turned out to be a huge turning point in his career since the two of them (and Lukas’ band Promise of the Real) have been backing him on record and onstage ever since. It’s always impossible to guess what kind of show he’ll bring to Farm Aid, but this year it was a mixture of crowd-pleasers like “Heart of Gold” and “Harvest Moon” with Farm Aid–appropriate tunes like “Homegrown” and Workin’ Man,” and a few genuine curveballs like “Throw Your Hatred Down” from 1995’s Mirror Ball. This required Promise of the Real to quickly pivot from the gentle, acoustic mode of the Stray Gators to the electric, thrashy feel of Crazy Horse. As always, they were ready for everything Young threw at them and proved once again why they deserve to be his band of choice these days.
2. Willie Nelson Sends Everybody Home
Willie Nelson scared many fans a few months ago when he cancelled a series of shows due to flu-like symptoms. It seemed quite possible that he’d miss his first Farm Aid ever, but he walked onstage at the end of the night with Micah and Lukas along with his longtime band and burst into “Whiskey River” looking pretty spry, all things considered. The set list didn’t have a lot of surprises, but he allowed Lukas to handle lead vocals on “Texas Flood” and their voices blended together beautifully for many of the other songs, especially “Still Is Still Moving to Me.” Neil Young came out near the end to join them for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I Saw the Light,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and others. It was almost a note-for-note recreation of many Farm Aid finales of the past, but even the muddiest fans at the back of the lawn didn’t seem to care and joyfully sang along with every word.
3. Bonnie Raitt Gets Her 1980s On
Bonnie Raitt used her limited time at Farm Aid to pay tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan (who played Alpine Valley the night he died) and cover John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” and John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love.” She also noted it was the 30th anniversary of her landmark album Nick of Time before playing her crossover hit “Southing To Talk About.” It was part of a 1980s celebration that also included her take on “Need You Tonight” by INXS and “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads. The set earned many of the loudest cheers of the night. This was first Farm Aid appearance since 1992, but let’s hope it’s not another 27 years before they invite her back again.
4. John Mellencamp Delivers the Hits
John Mellencamp hasn’t performed a show since April and his voice seemed a little scratchy and gruff when he came out and opened up with the 2014 deep cut “Lawless Times,” but he won the crowd over when he transitioned right into “Small Town” and then stuck largely to classics like “Check It Out,” “The Authority Song” and “Jack and Diane.” He played the latter acoustically and he gently admonished the crowd when they sang along, but rushed ahead to the “oh yeah, life goes on part” too early. “No, no, no,” he said. “That’s the chorus. There’s two verses and then the chorus. You skipped a verse!” As always, the unofficial Farm Aid anthem “Rain on the Scarecrow” was the best part of his set. He plays it at every Farm Aid, but it was especially intense in a state like Wisconsin that has seen countless farms vanish over the years.
5. Tanya Tucker Returns
Tanya Tucker hasn’t graced the stage at Farm Aid since the festival’s inaugural year in 1985. “It’s taken Willie a long time to invite me back,” the outlaw queen hilariously told the crowd while tearing through “Hard Luck” and “The Wheels of Laredo” — two tracks from her new comeback album While I’m Livin.’ Before launching into a delicate rendition of her 1972 breakout hit “Delta Dawn,” she surprised fans with “Bidding America Goodbye,” a song about farmers losing their land that she hasn’t performed in 30 years. As she changed the chorus to “Underneath the cold Wisconsin sky,” Tucker proved her three-decade–plus absence hasn’t changed her dedication to the cause. “Next time I get hungry, I’m going to think of ya’ll,” she told the farmers during the festival’s press conference. “When I think about having that glass of milk and pie before going to bed, I’m going to think of the dairy farmers!”
6. Micah Nelson’s Euphoric “Bullshit” Jam
Willie Nelson’s youngest son Micah has been going to Farm Aids as far back as he can remember and he’s performed every year since 2013. This year’s set came early in the night (shortly after John Mellencamp’s nephew Ian left the stage) and he didn’t get a lot of time, but he made it count by playing an epic rendition of his anthem “Everything Is Bullshit” along with his brother Lukas. This is such a great tune that Neil Young has added it to his live repertoire when Micah plays with him, and at Farm Aid they stretched it out as long as possible as the two brothers traded guitar licks back and forth. It was the first of many great moments the brothers shared throughout the long show.
7. Lukas Nelson Covers Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young played Farm Aid in 1990 and 2000, but their ongoing spat means it is very unlikely to ever happen again. Lukas Nelson filled the void during his set (which featured guest appearances by Yola, Margo Price, and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats) by wrapping up with a soaring rendition of “Carry On.” Lukas is the latest in a long line of guitar greats that have played in groups alongside Neil Young, so it was nice to see him pay tribute to Stephen Stills since he was the guy that started it all. Hopefully, Lukas and Stills get a chance to play it together some day.
8. Yola Rides Out in the Country
British breakout singer Yola brought her powerhouse vocals to the farm, performing several songs from her excellent Dan Auerbach–produced debut Walk Through Fire. Her single “Ride Out in the Country” and a cover of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” were fitting for the event, especially the latter, which she dedicated to “fellow brit” Elton John as she sang about returning to the plough. By the end of her brief set she had garnered new fans, who later screamed when Lukas Nelson brought her out to perform with Promise of the Real and when Bonnie Raitt name-dropped her during her set.
9. Jamey Johnson Gets Patriotic
With the exception of board members Neil Young, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, and Willie Nelson, nobody has graced the Farm Aid stage more often than Jamey Johnson. The singer-songwriter has played 10 times since 2008 and always delivers one of the best sets of the night. He opened this year with his 2008 classic “In Color” and then went into a stripped-down rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Pete Seeger played the song at Farm Aid 2013 during one of his final public appearances, but the song has rarely felt this intense and urgent. Johnson even sang the oft-skipped “private property” verse that was met with roars of approval from the audience. Many audience members didn’t seem to know Johnson when he came onto the stage, but they were quickly converted into fans and gave him a huge standing ovation when he left. It happens every single year. They should really think about putting him on the board at some point; he’s one of Farm Aid’s most powerful ambassadors.
10. Margo Price, Heart of the Heartland
Halfway through her fourth year performing at Farm Aid, Margo Price told the crowd why she was so attached to the benefit. “My folks lost their family farm in 1985, the year Farm Aid was started,” she said. “So it means a lot to be here.” The Nashville darling conquered the stage, entrancing the crowd with a scorching cover Janis Joplin’s “Move Over” and her new song “Long Live the King,” a tribute to Elvis — before tossing flowers to a sea of fans on her way out. She would appear consistently throughout the day, introducing the Wisdom Indian Dancers and joining Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real during their set, proving that she’s become an irreplaceable component of the annual festival.