25th Farm Aid intertwined music, food and family
Neil Young brought heart and soul to his Farm Aid 25 performance Saturday at Miller Park in Milwaukee.
By Piet Levy, Special for USA TODAY
MILWAUKEE — It has been 25 years since Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp put together the first Farm Aid concert to raise money and awareness on behalf of family farmers. For Farm Aid 25, the three legends assembled 14 additional acts (including Dave Matthews, Kenny Chesney and Norah Jones) to perform at the non-profit's milestone show. Held at Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers, on Saturday, the show was the first Farm Aid ever hosted in "The Dairy State" of Wisconsin.
The cause: Music drew the crowd, but for Matthews, who has been on Farm Aid's board of directors since 2001, it's the message that really matters — that Americans must support family farmers and what they stand for. "In order for all of us to be healthier as a nation we have to be more concerned with what we eat, and for our environment we have to be more concerned about how we treat our land," Matthews said. "And I think the small farmer is at the base of that."
Echoed Jason Mraz, who played his second Farm Aid show this year: "I want to do this for life. This is the one concert (and) cause that affects everybody. This is about our food. Farm Aid reminds us that our food is our life."
It takes a village: Farm Aid's annual Homegrown Village showcase featured tents of farmer and environmental advocacy groups spreading the word about wind power, beekeeping and farmer rights, while bags collecting trash for compost were found all over the ballpark.
The crowd: Teens to seniors, cowboys to cowgirls, hippies to preppies. Denim everywhere, but rarely any overalls — although farmers, prompted by artist shout-outs during their sets, made their voices loud and clear with their cheers.
Farmer-friendly food: Typical fest staples corn dogs, French fries, popcorn and pizza, except at this gig they were organic. Farm vendors also served Wisconsin-grown apples (some covered in caramel) and thick, saliva-inducing pork chop sandwiches, slathered with barbecue sauce.
Farm Aid figures: Farm Aid 25 earned more than $2 million from ticket prices alone, said Glenda Yoder, associate director for Farm Aid. That's atop the more than $37 million raised since Farm Aid's inception. Attendance for Farm Aid 25 exceeded 35,000.
No Red Headed Stranger: Farm Aid President Nelson kept popping up for guest appearances, first alongside singer-songwriter Amos Lee, then Jones, Matthews, and with Matthews and Mellencamp during Neil Young's farmer-focused Homegrown. Nelson had a special guest during his own set, Aerosmith frontman (and recently anointed American Idol judge) Steven Tyler, who jammed on harmonica and sang duet for One Time Too Many.
Representing Wisconsin: Veteran rockers The BoDeans, hailing from the Milwaukee suburbs, played hometown heroes early in the day as Farm Aid's only Wisconsin act. Playing its biggest hit, old Party of Five theme song Closer to Free, the band inspired a party of thousands.
Quieting the crowd: Lee hushed the stadium with a soulful, acoustic rendering of his Supply and Demand, stopping his strumming momentarily for some exceptional a cappella. When Nelson showed, it proved to be the most moving duet of the day.
First timers: Farm Aid's lineup consisted of long-established artists and a few little-known players. Right in the middle was Band of Horses, a folk rock quintet that backed up its building buzz with a solid Farm Aid set, the band's first. "We've actually had the good fortune of playing with Willie and Neil before, so any time they come knocking you answer the door," Horses frontman Ben Bridwell said backstage. "But also to be a part of this insane tradition and massive selfless cause is absolutely an honor. We like delicious foods, so it's a nice cause to get behind."
Like father, like son. Sort of: Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real got a prime slot, likely thanks to Lukas' dad Willie, but the group's gritty blues rock set was one of the day's liveliest, with Lukas bouncing around barefoot on stage during Hoochie Coochie Man, and playing a fiery guitar solo — with his teeth. Backstage, Lukas Nelson said his dad taught him to play guitar, but he had to teach himself how to play with his chompers. Time for son to give dad a music lesson?
A family connection: "I wrote this song for you," Mraz said to the farmers in the crowd before leading an eight-piece band into a new track likely to be called The Fixer, about his late grandfather Frank Mraz, a farmer and mechanic. "I always wanted to write a song for him. I have for the past 10 years," Mraz explained. "And it wasn't until probably the influence of Farm Aid that it all came together for me and how I could tell my granddad's story and serve a purpose, and have the song actually contribute to something, highlight the family farmer. I knew the minute I wrote it I was going to play it at Farm Aid. Farm Aid was on the TV when I would stay with my grandparents growing up. Willie Nelson was on the radio when I got in my granddad's truck. So now I'm hanging out with Willie, now I'm at Farm Aid, and I can only think of my granddad." Mraz fans can expect The Fixer on the next album.
On his own: Playing a beloved band's song without the band can be bad news, particularly in front of thousands, but Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, alone on acoustic guitar, still brought out the beauty and power of Wilco gems like I'll Fight.
Breaking up the boys' club: One gripe with Farm Aid — all the headliners were men, except for Jones, who brought some much needed femininity (and sharp red cowboy boots) to her set, swaying gently in front of the mic, guitar in hand, for a lovely rendition of How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart, (a song she set to previously unused Hank Williams lyrics), then traded guitar for piano on Sinkin' Soon.
Summertime in October: Even an enclosed roof over Miller Park couldn't keep the chilly temperature outside from creeping in. But country superstar Kenny Chesney brought some temporary heat with Summertime, before changing moods with somber cautionary tale Don't Blink and then, for the first time live, Somewhere With You off his new album. Hemingway's Whiskey.
Reimagining a classic: Only a fool would dare take on All Along The Watchtower, a song made great by Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. Well, good thing Matthews and guitarist Tim Reynolds are crazy, because their take on Watchtower was surprisingly invigorating. It was a good start to a set that culminated with Reynolds' fanciful free-flow guitar work dancing off of Matthews' Crush, which thankfully fell just short of self-indulgence.
Playing the hits: Mellencamp gave the crowd exactly what it wanted — hit song after hit song, starting off with Pink Houses and a smoking Paper in Fire. From there, Mellencamp, with just his voice, led the masses into a sing-along of Cherry Bomb, a poignant acoustic take on Small Town, and with his ace band, built the crowd up with Crumblin' Down. No set, start to finish, was better at Farm Aid.
Learning from Neil Young: Nearly all of the acts paid lip service to supporting family farms, but Young spent nearly half his time on stage talking up the cause. Ultimately, it was the lecturing that earned him a standing ovation. "Maybe you don't realize what's really going on with factory farms in this country, how they are displacing family farms at an alarming rate," Young said. "Factory farms are the reason why we have food alerts. They are the reason why we have dying people and disease. Try to buy something from a family farm, something that's sustainably grown. You deserve the best. Your children deserve the best."
Willie Nelson, reggae star: Country tunes like Whiskey River were expected from Nelson, and a rendition of Stevie Ray Vaughn's blues jam Texas Flood (sung by son Lukas) wasn't out of the ordinary. But hearing the elder Nelson sing and play guitar alongside Marty Dread to a reggae ditty called Lend a Hand to the Farmers, was, well, a little strange coming from the Red Headed Stranger. Nevertheless, thousands sang along in support. At evening's end, Young, Jones and Band of Horses (plus Native American dancers, a marine and a mother cradling a baby) joined Nelson on stage for Good Hearted Woman, which Nelson co-wrote with Waylon Jennings. The tempo inspired a bit of boot shuffling atop the Brewers dugout.
Dave Matthews, Norah Jones, Jeff Tweedy and Steven Tyler join the benefit’s founders for a triumphant, all-day anniversary show
By Austin Scaggs
Oct 03, 2010 6:40 PM EDT
"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."
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?"
John Mellencamp's music, stage show, ages well By Jon M. Gilbertson, Special to the Journal Sentinel
Oct. 2, 2010
There was a time — a sad, sad time — when John Mellencamp thought one way to keep his older stuff fresh was to, for example, add a section of rapping to “Jack and Diane.”
Judging from his Farm Aid set, his current method of preservation works considerably better: a sweep of fiddle here, a squeeze of accordion there and an overall sense of purpose everywhere.
Like the other members of Farm Aid’s Big Three (as in Willie and Neil), Mellencamp was quite willing to revisit the songs even the casual fans love him for, including “Paper in Fire,” “Check It Out” and “Small Town.” He just leaned back on his loud band more than his younger, feistier self might have done.
Age didn’t always matter, though. “Rain on the Scarecrow,” his farmer’s lament from 1985 (the year Farm Aid began), hasn’t lost a drop of relevance; neither have the years and cigarettes lessened Mellencamp’s force in singing it.
He seems to have learned that one way to avoid having to be timely is to manage, every so often, to be timeless.
Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow By Karen Herzog of the Journal Sentinel
Oct. 2, 2010
People wondered why Farm Aid didn't save Kenny and Sue Massey's farm after they were put in the spotlight of the first benefit concert in 1985.
The Masseys turned down offers to help them keep the land, saying they couldn't accept money when others were going under.
Willie Nelson flew the couple and their five children to the second Farm Aid concert in Austin, Texas, several months after they lost their Iowa County egg farm to foreclosure.
They hadn't been to a Farm Aid concert since, until Saturday at Miller Park.
"Isn't it amazing these musicians are still here for the farmer, paying their own way," Kenny Massey said. "They haven't gotten older. But we have."
As singer-songwriter John Mellencamp delivered his populist brand of heartland rock one more time, Kenny put his arm around his wife and remembered what life was like 25 years ago, the first time Mellencamp took the stage on behalf of family farms. Kenny recalled the anxiety that kept him up at night. The what-ifs. The pain of losing his family's livelihood.
"I still wake up sometimes, thinking about what I could have done differently," said the farmer-turned-landscaper. "I'm a better person for losing the farm. I'm not judgmental; there's only one person who can really judge you... And sometimes you have to leave the farm to reinvent yourself."
As Mellencamp launched into "Rain on the Scarecrow," Kenny grew quiet.
"Four hundred empty acres that used to be my farm. I grew up like my daddy did. My grandpa cleared the land."
Kenny was the third generation of his family to work the land.
"Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow."
Sue looked at Kenny: "There were some very difficult, sad, trying times. But I always thought, 'We've gotta stay together and make it,'" she said.
She remembered telling him as the farm auction neared, they needed to start packing and come up with a plan: "Kenny said, 'We're not leaving 'til they shove us off the land.' I went into the attic and started to pack.'"
"Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow."
Willie for the Nobel Peace Prize?
By Bill Glauber of the Journal Sentinel
Oct. 2, 2010
Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp made a pitch to get Willie Nelson a Nobel Peace Prize Saturday.
"I am personally campaigning to get Willie Nelson a Nobel Peace Prize," Mellencamp said in a sometimes humorous and often serious opening address at Saturday's news conference.
"But surely someone can write something in the newspaper," he said. "Willie has done this, kept all us guys together, kept it going. I think he has done a wonderful job, donated millions of dollars, really cared. So you fellows who are involved in this Nobel Peace Prize business should take a look at Willie Nelson."
It was Mellencamp who recruited talk-show host Tavis Smiley to serve as a master of ceremonies for the concert.
How did he get Smiley? He basically instructed Smiley on live television that he was going to host the Farm Aid concert.
"I had actually thought the minute we sat down he would be the perfect host for it because he’s interested in so many things and qualified to speak on so many things," Mellencamp said, as Smiley looked on.
With a laugh, he told Smiley: "I’m happy you accepted the threat to come."
Mellencamp, who has written songs pointing to the desolation of small towns in the American heartland, talked about how those small towns continue to push him toward activism.
"There was a dream once upon a time in this country that we would raise the bar of the world and somehow everyone would come to our level; of course we’d be a little bit in front of them," he said. "What happened, through greed and non-caring about other people, we kind of went down to their level. As we sit here today, the United States in my mind is becoming more tribal, becoming almost a Third World nation."
Family farmers, he said, sustain America's small towns.
Farm Aid's Nelson: Americans need to back family farm
12:19 PM PDT, October 2, 2010
Milwaukee (Reuters) -- Thousands turned out Saturday for the 25th anniversary of “Farm Aid,” the benefit concert for America's family farmers headlined by the charity's founders: Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young.
This year's hours-long concert, dubbed “Farm Aid 25: Growing Hope for America,” was held at Miller Park, the home of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team.
The founding musicians, who gathered under a canopy outside the stadium to meet with reporters before the concert, praised family farmers as practitioners of sustainable agriculture while portraying corporate-run farms as greedy polluters contributing to the nation's obesity problem.
“We should be interested in knowing where our food comes from. If it comes from soil that is organic, that is grown by our family farmers, we know that it's more healthy than the food grown by big corporations that saturate the soil with chemicals and pesticides and fertilizers,” said Nelson, sporting a trademark cowboy hat and a jacket in the chilly air.
“Thank you for those farmers who are doing their part, doing organic farming, and who need our support. That's why we're here, 25 years in a row,” he said.
Concert vendors at the accompanying “HOMEGROWN” village adjacent to the venue sold fresh produce from local farms and displayed sustainable agricultural practices such as small-scale livestock raising, beekeeping, and composting.
Young railed at what he said was the “poisoning” of the environment by corporate-run, confinement hog farms, and urged government to regulate what he said was a chaotic biofuels industry.
Mellencamp decried the greed that he said was hurting the nation's farmers, and expressed concern America was becoming ”more tribal … almost a Third World nation.”
“As the family farm goes, so goes America, and what then will this country be, and how proud are we going to be of ourselves?” Mellencamp said.
Inspired by the 1980s farm crisis that gripped America's heartland, the inaugural “Farm Aid” concert was held on September 22, 1985, in Champaign, Illinois, where 80,000 gathered to hear a stellar lineup that featured Johnny Cash, B.B. King and Bob Dylan.
“Farm Aid” has since raised a total of more than $37 million, each year responding to a different need ranging from dairy farmers in trouble to farmers hit by flooding.
Dave Matthews, a Farm Aid board member, was among the performers donating their talents to this year's show, which organizers said was expected to draw more than 30,000 people.
Ticket prices ranged from $40 to nearly $100 each.
The proceeds do not go directly to for-profit farmers because of tax rules governing charities. Instead, the money is used to donate necessities like groceries to struggling farmers, operate a hot line for farmers and hire advocates for them, organizers said.
Though crop prices have been at historically high levels the past two years to the benefit of many farmers, those with livestock are contending with high feed costs.
A.V. Club - Milwaukee - Artist Set Recap
October 4, 2010
Click HERE for a detailed review of each artist's set by Steven Hyden
Dispensing with the obligatory “Pink Houses” at the top of a hits-laden set, John Mellencamp was a dependably solid and much-needed shot in the arm after the wretched doldrums of Kenny Chesney and Dave Matthews—more on them in a bit—playing the most overtly rocking music of the day. (Though the artist formerly known as Cougar also made sure to do a mini-acoustic set.) Mellencamp songs like “Small Town” and “Rain On The Scarecrow” had the advantage of relating explicitly to the message of Farm Aid, something most of the other performers either only touched on with awkward between-song banter or avoided altogether.