Billboard: Farm Aid 2013: Pete Seeger Sings Out, Neil Young Speaks Up and Jack Johnson Cows Around
Billboard - By Thom Duffy
"Oh, but ain't that America, for you and me!" sang John Mellencamp on "Pink
Houses" at Farm Aid 2013, the annual benefit for America's family farmers,
staged Sept. 21 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, in Saratoga Springs, New
"That song," he explained, "was inspired by people who had come before me,
that were trying to make a difference with music." Specifically, said
Mellencamp, he had been thinking of Woody Guthrie's anthem "This Land Is Your
"I'm so humbled," he continued, "to bring out the guy who really made that
song what it is… Ladies and gentlemen, Pete Seeger!"
A surprise guest, Seeger, 94, walked out to an extended roar from the
sold-out crowd of 25,000. It was a heartfelt welcome for a man who has shaped
American music and culture for decades—much like the founder of Farm Aid, Willie
Nelson. The circle remains unbroken, indeed.
"Friends," began Seeger, horsely, "at 94, I don't have much of a voice left.
But here's a song I think you know. And if you sing it, why, we'll make a good
After a solo round on his banjo for "If I Had A Hammer" -- with thousands of
backup singers -- Seeger welcomed Farm Aid's guiding foursome: Nelson,
Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews for "This Land Is Your Land."
Seeger's compatriots smiled with glee as they shared the stage with the aging
but energetic singer, who declared, "I've got a verse you've never heard
"New York is my home
New York is your home
From the upstate mountains
Down to the ocean foam
With all kinds of people
Yes, we're polychrome
New York was meant to be frack free!"
Seeger's musical protest about pending plans to allow hydro-fracking in New
York State drew further roars of approval of the crowd and was consistent with
the tone of this year's Farm Aid.
Neil Young, a year after playing Farm Aid 2012 accompanied by the electric
fury of Crazy Horse, was no less intense in a remarkable solo set of covers
including Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning
Rain," Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe," and Phil Och's "Changes."
And Young drove home the link between Farm Aid's efforts and the fight against
"The farmers are on the front lines of climate change, and climate change is
THE issue of the 21st century," said Young at a press conference which opened
the day-long event. "It's a bigger way of looking at what we're all doing here.
It's about getting the carbon out of the sky and back into the earth."
Willie Nelson, aboard his biodiesel-fueled bus parked backstage during the
show, reflected on the change that Farm Aid has seen since it began in 1985,
prompted by the farm foreclosure crisis.
It helps "if you keeping hitting them [with a message] on the same spot for
28 years," Nelson quipped, rapping the table by his couch.
"But it's much, much easier [now] because people are spreading the word for
us. It's amazing what you can do here," he said, tapping the top of his laptop.
"A lot more than you can do on any network anywhere."
Farm Aid 2013 offered its strongest mobile and social presence yet. A Twitter
campaign with the hashtag #Road2FarmAid began weeks before the event. And a
mobile app developed by Aloompa allowed fans to keep track, among other things,
of both the artist lineup and the activities and workshops in the Homegrown
Village that accompanies each Farm Aid. (In an alphabetical list on the app, the
set by Neil Young could be found right between the workshops for Mushrooms 101
and Pancakes 101).
Before Jack Johnson took the stage for his eagerly awaited afternoon set, the
chart-topping singer took a tour of the activities at Homegrown Village—dressed
as a cow. Accompanied by Mugar, he greeted unsuspecting fans, patting one young
boy on the head with his hoof.
Johnson, who was making his second Farm Aid appearance, discussed how he had
been drawn in to the work of Farm Aid and how he and his wife, Kim, a former
school teacher, had created the Kokua Hawai'i Foundation to advance
After nearly 30 years, Farm Aid concerts have the feel of a family picnic,
writ large. After opening sets by the Blackwood Quartet, Jesse Lenat, and the
sultry Sasha Dobson, Insects vs. Robots took the stage, with Micah Nelson, of
two of Willie Nelson's sons on the days bill. Lukas Nelson fronted Promise of
the Real, and frequently accompanied his father. Pegi Young & the Survivors
played a set early in the day, followed soon afterward by Carlene Carter,
introduced appropriately as "country music royalty." Jamey Johnson played dark,
gothic, country rock as an inheritor of Willie Nelson's country outlaw
tradition. Toad the Wet Sprocket introduced their first single in 16 years. Amos
Lee, a red Farm Aid cap cocked sideways on his head, curly head of hair,
performed his soulful cover of "A Change Is Gonna Come."
And Kacey Musgraves, fresh from her six CMA nominations, charmed the crowd
with favorites like "Merry Go 'Round."
For Jack Johnson's set of lilting, then driving pop, Farm Aid's stage
backdrops of farm scenes gave way to apt images of Hawaiian waves and sunsets.
This was the opening of a tour for Johnson in support of his new album "From
Here To Now To You" which is expected to debut at No. 1 this week on the Hot
Dave Matthews declared "I love this building" as he took the Saratoga
Performing Arts Center stage. The Dave Matthews Band are regulars on the SPAC
summer schedule. But for Farm Aid, Matthews and and Tim Reynolds proved their
dual guitar pyrotechnics could produce as much energy and sonic power as a full
Mellencamp, backed by a six piece band, flexed musical muscles through a run
of his hits, from "Jack and Diane" and "Small Town" to the apt "Blood on the
Scarecrow" and "Pink Houses."
After Young's inspired acoustic set, Nelson closed the night with classics
like "Whiskey River," "Crazy" and "Night Life," before calling out all hands for
the traditional finale of "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die."
Backstage, meanwhile, Seeger captivated visitors with his storytelling. Like
Nelson, he has founded a music-rooted organization of social activism that has
thrived for decades: the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, which has offered
environmental education since 1969.
Seeger said he came to Farm Aid because, remarkably, he and Nelson had never
previously met or shared a stage, he said.
And he recognized the common thread between Farm Aid and his Clearwater
"It's all these relatively little things," he said, "which are going to save
the human race."