“This echo is good,” Neil Young said toward the end of his set at Farm Aid’s 25th annual concert, which drew 35,000 to Milwaukee’s Miller Park. Playing songs like “Down By the River” and “Ohio” alone with an electric guitar and organ pedals he manipulated with his feet — and occasionally joined by a harmonica and a choir featuring his wife, Pegi — Young used the baseball dome’s booming acoustics to his advantage, creating dissonant echoes and swirls of feedback with his snarling licks. Between songs he unleashed tirades about factory farms, estimating that over the last quarter-century hundreds of thousands of family farms have been displaced or overrun by factories. “We’re all hopeful,” he said. “That’s why we’re here. You can never give up. Never. Never. Never. So every year I get a chance to rant about it.” Appropriately, Young ended his set with the Seventies gem, “Homegrown,” joined by his fellow Farm Aid board members Dave Matthews and John Mellencamp, as well as Farm Aid’s president, Willie Nelson. It was as close to an all-star jam as the night had to offer. Even Jeff Tweedy, who had played earlier, couldn’t resist harmonizing from the visiting team’s dugout, where he watched the rest of the show with his wife and two sons. Capping off the night was the eleven-hour concert’s biggest surprise: Steven Tyler joining Willie Nelson on “One Time Too Many” and “Once is Enough.”
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The Farm Aid foursome — Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and Matthews — were joined by twelve other acts on Saturday at Miller Park, including Nelson’s guitar-slinging son Lukas, who ran around the stage barefoot leading his band, the Promise of the Real, through blues incantations and rockers. “I’m worried he’s gonna break his legs jumping around like that,” his dad told Rolling Stone that afternoon on his tour bus. Band of Horses followed with tunes from their latest, Infinite Arms. “I remember seeing the first Farm Aid on TV when I was seven,” says BOH frontman Ben Bridwell, who played with Willie on “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” in Maui, in 2009. “I mean, I’ve known about Farm Aid longer than I’ve been able to distinguish color, or do long division. I’m am never gonna forget this.”
Many artists performed stripped-down sets. Country hellraiser Jamey Johnson played the classic “I Saw the Light” alone with an acoustic. The dreary day, with temperatures in the forties and steady rain coming down, caused organizers to close the dome’s retractable roof, but the sun finally peeked through the windows when Jeff Tweedy hit the stage. With an acoustic guitar and harmonica rack, Tweedy ran through “Out of Tune,” “I’ll Go” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” which he dedicated to his wife, Sue Miller. Matthews was joined by guitarist Tim Reynold for his half-hour set, culled mostly from his 2003 solo album, Some Devil, but featuring some Dave Matthews Band jams like “Don’t Drink the Water.” Nelson also sat in with them for a haunting “Gravedigger.”
Norah Jones, the only female on the bill, was warmly received. She alternated between guitar and piano, borrowing Young’s upright, just as she did at last year’s Bridge School Benefit. Jones, a bassist, and singer-strummer Sasha Dobson — who nicknamed themselves the Rams, because they were all born Aries, in 1979 — sauntered through “Come Away With Me,” Johnny Cash’s “Cry, Cry, Cry” and “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart” (the lyrics for which were written by Hank Williams). Midway through Jones’ set, Nelson pulled up to the stage in a golf cart to duet with her on “Lonestar.” “We’re both Texans,” she pointed out. (She also announced, at another point, that she was a farmer for Halloween last year.) Later Jones joined Tweedy in the visitor’s dugout and celebrated the day with an organic hot dog.
“As the family farmer goes, so goes America,” said Mellencamp, before tearing thorugh “Pink Houses,” “Take Some Time To Dream,” and “Scarecrow,” which he also performed at the inaugural Farm Aid, held in Illinois in 1985. Before his set, as he smoked American Spirits in his Airstream trailer outside the venue, Mellencamp reminisced about that first show. “I remember seeing Bob Dylan and Tom Petty sitting on a step, smoking cigarettes,” he said, smiling. After twenty-five annual shows, he says his most profound memory is of watching Elton John perform “Candle in the Wind” at the 1990 show in his homestate of Indiana. “The day before, at Elton’s request, I had visited Ryan White in his hospital,” said Mellencamp, referring to the young boy suffering from AIDS to whom Elton had dedicated his performance. “I was pretty choked up.”
Earlier in the day, at a press conference held at Miller Park’s adjacent little league field, Mellencamp said, not for the first time, that Nelson should be honored with a Nobel Peace Prize for his tireless devotion to American farmers. After all, Farm Aid is the longest-running musical cause ever. Willie, standing to Mellencamp’s right, responded, “How ’bout the No Bull prize?”