Written By Guest Blogger Josh Jackson
October 2, 2010 marked the 25th Anniversary of Farm Aid, the concert started back in 1985 by Willie Nelson to provide relief for America’s family farmers. Since it’s inception, stars from all genres of music have joined Willie and board members John Mellencamp, Neil Young & most recent appointee, Dave Matthews to form star-studded events for the cause. One would hope that after 25 years the problem would have been corrected, but there is still a great need to provide help to farmers across the country. As Willie stated this year, ‘The great thing is we’re still around 25 years later. The bad news is…we’re still around 25 years later.’
So, once again a massive event was hosted to support the American family farmer. And for the first time, the event was held in Milwaukee at the fabulous, Miller Park: home to the Milwaukee Brewers.
As has been tradition, with only a handful of fans in the 35,000 available seats, Willie Nelson and several American Indians in full headdress came to the stage to begin the festivities. They started the day by blessing the event with the Lord’s Prayer as well as with a traditional Indian ceremony. Then, it was time for the music to begin.
The first act was a newly formed version of the Blackwood Quartet. Led for several years by Ron Blackwood, the quartet is now fronted by his cousin, Mark Blackwood. Ron’s health has been suspect for some time and so he turned over the reins to the group in February of this year. Their sound is still traditional Southern Gospel and they blew through tunes that most church goin’ folk could sing along to. ‘I Know Who’s In The Boat,’ ‘Where No One Stands Alone,’ ‘Jesus Is Coming Soon,’ ‘He Touched Me’ & ‘Put Your Hands In The Hand.’ While there weren’t many people there, they sounded great and you could tell they were very excited to be a part of the event.
Then, like Monty Python said ‘And now for something completely different…’
Up next were the indie rockers, Robert Francis Band. Coming straight from a gig in Paris, the band played like the ballpark was completely packed just for them. They performed three tunes, ‘Climb A Mountain,’ ‘Junebug,’ & ‘Mescaline.’ While the musical style is more fitting for theatres or clubs, the highlight for me was ‘Junebug,’ one of the catchiest melodies I have heard in a while.
The Randy Rogers Band have skirted mainstream success with videos on CMT in the last couple of years, but haven’t quite broken out of the Texas dance hall scene or opening for more well-known artists. Dressed down in T-shirts and jeans, the band worked through ‘Too Late For Goodbye,’ ‘Last Last Chance,’ ‘CMT favorite, ‘Kiss Me In The Dark’ & ‘This Time Around.’ The set started off strong, but Randy’s voice faded quickly and I wasn’t as impressed as I thought I might be.
In 1989, I spent a portion of the summer with a buddy on a houseboat on Lake Lanier in North Georgia. All that summer we wore out cassettes by the House Martins, the Connells, and one of my all-time favorites, the BoDeans. Being that the band is from Milwaukee, they got an invitation to perform at the show. I was thrilled to get the chance to tell Kurt Neumann what a fan I was and how I basically learned to play guitar by listening to their album, Outside Looking In. He was very gracious, acknowledging they weren’t too hard on me as a teacher back then, and said he was glad to know he was passing something along to someone else. Very cool. They started off with extended versions of ‘Fadeaway’ & ‘Good Things’ and then closed with their mid-nineties hit, ‘Closer To Free.’ This was the first time the TV director was able to take a camera shot of the audience since several members of the crowd were dancing and singing along. They left me wanting more, but it was great to see Kurt & Sammy in action once again.
Amos Lee was next, performing solo. I have to admit, I had never heard of him before seeing his name in the line-up. However, as I was doing my prep for the show, I quickly learned that this was an artist to take notice of. Imagine Paolo Nutini mixed with Shawn Mullins & a dash of Marvin Gaye and you get the idea; a quirky, yet soulful delivery of songs with substance. I became even more impressed with him as he overcame some technical difficulties to deliver performances of ‘Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight,’ ‘Supply & Demand,’ ‘Street Corner Preacher’ & ‘Windows Rolled Down.’
One of the highlights of the afternoon was Willie Nelson and his harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, coming to the stage to close the set with ‘El Camino.’ It was a great end to the set of an artist I definitely plan on looking into more.
Band Of Horses is one of the ‘buzz’ bands I have heard much about on alternative radio, but I wasn’t too familiar with their sound. Having heard it now, I would classify it as an odd range of folk & rock that doesn’t strike me as particularly welcoming on first listen. That doesn’t mean it’s all bad, but I found it hard to take seriously a band who’s first song ‘Is There A Ghost’ only has a handful of words in it repeated over and over for 3 minutes. Even as they broke into song #2, ‘Laredo’ (by far the catchiest song in the set) lead singer Ben Bridwell exclaimed to the audience, ‘I promise this one has more than 7 words in it.’ You can tell these guys have talent, but I am not so sure these South Carolina natives struck a chord with the Farm Aid audience. They finished the set with ‘Riders,’ ‘Compliments,’ & the haunting & pensive tune, ‘The Funeral.’
One would only suspect that the only reason that Lukas Nelson got a slot in the festival for the second year in a row was, well, that he was Willie Nelson’s son. That said, only someone who has never seen Lukas perform would say or think such a thing. This kid is amazing. Imagine if Willie Nelson sang for Jimmy Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan. That’s right I said Hendrix and Vaughan. And yes, he IS that good. I haven’t seen someone destroy a stratocaster like this in a long time. Admittedly, last year I was not as impressed, but in a years time he has tightened up his skills, his band (anchored by John Avila of Oingo Boingo on bass) and his set. While the original songs aren’t the strongest, the performance & delivery more than makes up for it. There was more passion and stage artistry in this set than in all the other acts combined. Lukas commanded the audiences attention through songs like ‘Forever Is A Four Letter Word,’ ‘Toppers,’ ‘Peaceful Solution,’ & ‘Sound Of Your Memory.’ Then he brought them to their feet with his Hendrix-esque version of the Muddy Waters classic ‘Hootchie Kootchie Man,’ topped off with a solo section played with none other than his tongue. Lukas’ albums aren’t yet available in stores or on Itunes, but keep your eyes on this young kid. I see nothing but great things in store for him in the future.
You can easily imagine that 30 or 40 years ago Jamey Johnson would have fit right in with the ‘Outlaw’ movement artists like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, & Kris Kristofferson. So it makes sense that he would join Willie and be a part of Farm Aid for the 3rd year in a row. Armed with just an acoustic guitar, Johnson picked through ‘Can’t Cash My Checks,’ ‘The Way I Am,’ & ‘Ain’t No Good At All’ before launching into a faithful version of the Vern Gosdin hit ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe,’ which he includes on his new album Guitar Song. I found it appropriate that co-writer of the tune with Vern, Buddy Cannon, was backstage to hear him perform it. Next was perhaps Johnson’s greatest hit, ‘In Color,’ which got the audience singing along. He finished out the set with one of my favorite tunes, Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Moment Of Forever’ and then the Gospel sing-along, ‘I Saw The Light.’ While he is perhaps more captivating with a full band, Johnson did his part to support Farm Aid and was widely accepted by the audience.
While many of the bands during the day tended to scale down their performances, the next artist pulled out his full band including horns, percussion & keys in addition to the regular rhythm section. And you could tell by the high-pitched squeal from the ladies of the audience that Jason Mraz was in the house. If the squeal was loud when Jason took the stage, it escalated a notch when he broke into his mega hit ‘I’m Yours’ to start things off. Next was the reggae/scat ‘What Mama Say’ & the entertaining acoustic tune ‘They Shaped My Life.’ These first songs were just a tease as Jason took a quick break so that Willie Nelson could come out and properly introduce him for the TV audience. With millions now in tow on the tube & online, Mraz played a tune written for farmers and inspired by his grandfather, ‘Frank D. Fixer.’ He ended the set with a cover of Luc & the Lovington’s ‘Freedom Song.’ While he doesn’t have the renown of many of the artists on the bill, it is obvious he was one of the more popular acts of the day and put on a very entertaining set.
Wilco has always been a hot musical choice for hipsters across the country and lead singer Jeff Tweedy was next on stage. Equipped with an array of acoustic guitars and harmonicas, Tweedy did his best Neil Young impression on Wilco tunes ‘Sunken Treasure,’ ‘Remember The Mountain Bed’ & ‘I’ll Fight.’ He then played the title track to the Mavis Staples album that he produced, ‘You Are Not Alone.’
Continuing to play songs from all across the Wilco catalog he closed with ‘Jesus Etc,’ & ‘I’m The Man Who Loves You.’ All in all not a very exciting set. I would much rather see Wilco as a full band than to ever see Jeff solo again.
Continuing the snooze fest was Norah Jones. Don’t get me wrong, Norah has an amazing voice; it’s just after Jeff Tweedy’s slow performance this one had me ready for a nap. While her set seemed more appropriate for a small cabaret than a stadium of 35,000, flanked by a guitar player and bassist, Jones went from piano on the opener ‘Come Away With Me,’ to the guitar for Johnny Cash’s ‘Cry, Cry, Cry,’ and her own, ‘How Many Times Have you Broken My Heart,’ ‘Sinking Soon,’ & ‘Sunrise.’ The highlight of the set was her returning to the piano and Willie Nelson coming to the stage for the closer ‘Lonestar.’
After two acoustic sets in a row you would think that another would sink the afternoon completely, but in fact it did nothing but the opposite. Farm Aid board member Dave Matthews & longtime collaborator, Tim Reynolds have long proven that two middle-aged guys with acoustic guitars do not equal a boring performance. The crowd went wild as the pair took the stage and launched into Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower.’ I have always been impressed with this combination of performers and like many times before, they delivered once again. DMB favorites ‘Satellite,’ ‘Don’t Drink The Water,’ ‘Save Me,’ & ‘You & Me’ filled the meat of the set list and it continued with Willie Nelson returning to the stage to sing ‘Grave Digger.’ To the dismay of the audience, Dave & Tim closed things earlier than expected with the melodic classic, ‘Crush.’ It amazes me to no end how Dave commands an audience of 35,000 plus to sing along, making a huge stadium seem like an intimate living room. To me, that is the mark of a true entertainer & performer.
Speaking of performers, perhaps one of the best of all time was next. Farm Aid Co-founder John Mellencamp and his band have been a fixture at these fundraisers and while their performance the last few years has been similar, it is no less entertaining. Opening the set with ‘Pink Houses,’ ‘Paper In Fire,’ &‘Check It Out’ really got the crowd going. While the arrangements may have changed a little from the original recordings, the substance is still there and the audience participates. In the middle of the set things slowed down a bit as Mellencamp came to the stage with an acoustic guitar and sang a newer song, ‘Save Some Time To Dream.’ Then he led an a cappella audience sing along to ‘Cherry Bomb,’ continuing the acoustic set with ‘Don’t Need This Body, & ‘Small Town.’ Fiddle player Mirriam Sturn & accordion player Troye Kinnett stepped forward to solo for ‘Hymn’ which led right into the Farm Aid staple, ‘Rain On The Scarecrow.’ They then closed the set in rockin’ fashion with ‘If I Die Sudden’ & the classic ‘Crumblin’ Down.’ There are few bands left that I am willing to pay big money for but Mellencamp is probably one of them.
To me, one of the more interesting voices in popular music is Neil Young. He can be a folk singer or a rocker, which really sets him apart from other artists. This night he mixed things up quite a bit by coming out solo, but still playing distorted electric guitar and random organ pedals to really shake the bass frequency in the house. He opened with ‘Down By The River,’ new song, ‘Hitchhiker’ & C,S,N&Y protest song, ‘Ohio.’ He then did another song off his just released album Le Noise, ‘Sign Of Love,’ before bringing out his three background singers (including his wife Pegi) & harmonica player Mickey Raphael for ‘Mother Earth,’ & the Still-Young classic, ‘Long May You Run.’ The set ended with a Farm Aid first. Joining Young on stage were Jon Mellencamp, Dave Matthews & Willie Nelson for the light-hearted tribute to hemp that they skew every year towards Farm Aid, ‘Homegrown.’ This marked the first time all four board members had been on stage at the same time and was a great moment for the 25th Anniversary celebration.
The time we had waited for all day was finally here and even though he had shown his face several times during the day, it was now time for Willie Nelson to take the stage for his own set. It is no secret that the Father of Farm Aid is getting up in age and quite honestly isn’t the performer he once used to be. That said, there is still something that is so engaging about his playing and delivery that make him a true gem to behold.
While Willie almost always starts his show with ‘Whiskey River,’ as a surprise to most everyone, Steven Tyler from Aerosmith bounded out onto the stage with Willie to kick things off with ‘One Time Too Many,’ a song they have been performing together for years. Joined not only by his own band, but with son Lukas Nelson and his band, the crew then jumped into ‘Whiskey River,’ ‘Still Is Still Moving To Me,’ and Toby Keith’s biggest hit, ‘Beer For My Horses.’ Lukas then took the reins for an electrifying version of the 1958 Larry Davis tune made popular by Stevie Ray Vaughn, ‘Texas Flood.’ I’ll tell you again…check this kid out! The Waylon/Willie classic ‘Mama Don’t Let Your Babies…’ was next followed by Willie’s version of Tom T. Hall’s ‘Shoeshine Man.’ Hawaii’s reggae ambassador and 2006 touring mate of Willie’s Marty Dread joined in on the farming tune, ‘Lend A Hand’ and then the finale began. Anyone who had performed in the show that was still around came out onto the stage to join in on classics like ‘Good Hearted Woman,’ ‘On The Road Again’ ‘I Saw The Light.’ ‘Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,’ and ‘Mountain Dew.’
Eleven hours of music, different performer of all genre and a cause to help America’s family farmers. It would be nice to think we wouldn’t need this concert much longer, but what a shame to miss such amazing performances if we didn’t. All in all, a great day and no doubt one of the best Farm Aid shows in recent memory. Happy 25th Farm Aid!
Written by Guest Blogger Josh Jackson
Tags: Amos Lee, Band Of Horses, Blackwood Quartet, BoDeans, Dave Matthews, Farm Aid 25th Anniversary, Farm Aid Review, jamey johnson, Jason Mraz, Jeff Tweedy, john Mellencamp, Lukas Nelson, Miller Park, Milwaukee, Neil Young, Norah Jones, Randy Rogers Band, Robert Francis Band, Steven Tyler, Tim Reynolds, Willie Nelson, Wisconsin