Rolling Stone: Neil Young, Dave Matthews, Jack Johnson Triumph At Soggy Farm Aid
Rolling Stone: By Andy Greene
"Friends, I'm 94 and don't have much voice left," said surprise Farm Aid guest
Pete Seeger when he took the stage near the end of the annual benefit concert.
"Here is a song I think you may know. I think if we sing it together we'll make
it a good song." He wasn't kidding about the state of his voice, but he
projected as much as he could and 26,000 fans joined him in a sing-along
rendition of "If I Had A Hammer," a tune he wrote with Lee Hayes a stunning 64
Seeger, making one of his first major public appearances since the death of
his wife, Toshi, in July, then invited Farm Aid board members Dave Matthews,
Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson onstage for a rousing "This Land
Is Your Land." None of them brought guitars, allowing Seeger and his banjo to
take the lead. He guided the crowd and the four music icons huddled beside him
through the oft-ignored "private property" verse (causing Young to raise his
arms in victory). They even introduced a new verse about New York state that
culminated with "New York was made to be frack free."
The brief set was the emotional high-point of the 11-hour festival, held this
year at the Saratoga Springs Performing Arts Center in upstate New York. Farm
Aid was founded in 1985 by Willie Nelson after he heard Bob Dylan's impromptu
comment at Live Aid that some of the money raised should be used to help farmers
pay their mortgages. The line incensed Live Aid co-founder Bob Geldof (who felt
it was off-message and trivial when compared to the famine in Ethiopia), but
Nelson felt differently; just a few months later, he held the first Farm Aid in
That first show came at the height of the all-star benefit concert/single,
but while Hands Across America, USA for Africa, Northern Lights, Self Aid and
Hear 'n Aid are now distant memories, Farm Aid has continued to thrive and grow.
It's partially due to the passion of Nelson and his fellow board members, but
also because the organization has broadened its message to resist fracking
efforts and support biofuels, a fact that Neil Young was happy to remind the
crowd of at every opportunity. (Their focus, of course, continues to be helping
struggling family farmers.)
© Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.
The proceedings kicked off with brief sets by up-and-comers Jesse Lenat, Sasha
Dobson and Insects vs. Robots. This reporter didn't arrive until 1:30 p.m., when
Pegi Young and the Survivors walked out. The Survivors are an extremely
impressive crew, with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Spooner Oldham on piano and
Rick Rosas on bass. Neil Young sat in with the group on guitar, though he made
sure to remain in the back and cede the spotlight to his wife, Pegi, as she has
done for him many times in the past. Pegi mixed in songs from her recent albums
with a cover of Oldham's "Lonely Women Make Good Lovers." Some people in the
crowd didn't even recognize the guest guitarist until she introduced the band at
Two children of country music legends took the stage in the mid-afternoon:
Carlene Carter and Lukas Nelson. Carter, daughter of June Carter and Carl Smith,
has been carrying on her family's music tradition for decades. She played a
handful of songs from her forthcoming autobiographical album and reminisced
about her family. "I spent most of my childhood in the back of a big black
Cadillac, carsick as hell while my grandfather drove," she said. "I miss them
Willie Nelson's son Lukas – introduced as the "Future of Farm Aid" – is just
24, but he's been playing with his father since he was little and is an
extremely impressive guitarist. He's released two albums with his band Promise
of Real, and when they jammed, they truly sounded like Cream – until Lukas began
playing guitar with his teeth and they sounded like the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The trick brought the crowd to their feet, forever ending the debate about
whether musical talent is hereditary.
Nineties survivors Toad the Wet Sprocket seemed like outliers on a bill
dominated by country and classic rock artists, but they quickly won over the
crowd by opening with their 1992 breakthrough hit "All I Want." They only had 20
minutes, and in that time they jammed with Lukas Nelson and his sister Amy, and
crammed in their other hits, "Walk on the Ocean" and "Fall Down." It was the
entire Toad the Wet Sprocket experience in an incredibly compact period of time.
Maybe next year the Gin Blossoms should come, too. It was a nice change of pace.
Amos Lee was one of the only people of the night to play completely solo
acoustic. He's not quite a household name yet, but the singer-songwriter has a a
very devoted following, and his last album even debuted at Number One on the
Billboard Hot 100. They were running a little behind schedule at this point, and
after just four songs, he was told to just do one more. "Should I do one of my
own?" he asked the crowd. "Or should I do one by Sam Cooke?" The vote seemed to
be split, but he went for Cooke and delivered a spellbinding rendition of "A
Change Is Gonna Come."
A seventh-place runner-up from the 2007 season of Nashville Star (country's
version of American Idol) seems like another unlikely candidate for Farm Aid,
but Kacey Musgraves is a genuine talent. She just turned 25, but she's already
on her fourth album, Same Trailer Different Park. It's a loose concept disc
about struggling Americans, and the songs were perfect for the event. She's also
a highly charismatic frontwoman, even getting people who were clearly there just
for Jack Johnson and Dave Matthews to sing along. Televised singing competitions
rarely create genuine stars (especially in recent years), but Musgraves is the
Jamey Johnson was up next. The country star (who looks like a missing cast
member from Duck Dynasty) also sang about down-and-out Americans, but his
characters were devastated by bad relationships, drugs and booze. Johnson
wrapped his set with "In Color," about an old man reflecting on the devastating
impact of the Great Depression and World War Two. The parallels to the present
were fairly obvious.
A sizable chunk of the crowd was clearly there for Jack Johnson. He's only
played a handful of American shows in the past three years (including Bonnaroo),
and his fans went ballistic when he took the stage. He mixed in older songs like
"Sitting, Waiting, Wishing" and "Banana Pancakes" with new material like
"Radiate" and "Shot Reverse Shot." Lukas Nelson came out for "Flake" and a
medley of "Whole Lotta Love" and "Staple It Together."
"It's my second year here," said Johnson. "I'm really happy to make it a
There was a big overlap between Johnson and Matthews fans. As always, Dave
played an acoustic set with Tim Reynolds. It was a loose and powerful seven-song
set highlighted by "#41," "Two Step" and "Save Me." "I like this room," said
Matthews. "I like this roof. I like this lawn. It's nice to bring something I
love to a place that I love." For those keeping track of such things, this was
the first time that Dave and Tim ever played "If Only" as an acoustic duo.
John Mellencamp stuck almost entirely to his deep catalog of hits, opening
with "The Authority Song. "I wrote this when I was 23," he said. "I still feel
the same way now that I did then." "No One Cares About Me" was the sole
selection from his last few albums. It was also the moment that the rain started
coming down, making the rest of the night very uncomfortable for the thousands
on the lawn.
"I wasn't going to play this next song," said Mellencamp after his large band
left the stage. "But someone backstage told me that I just gotta do it." The
opening lines of "Jack and Diane" sent shockwaves of joy through the crowd, and
drunk middle-aged men put their arms around each other and screamed out "hold
onto 16 as long as you can." It was oddly poignant, and the reaction seemed to
stun even Mellencamp. "It amazes me this song has lasted so long," he said.
A solo acoustic "Small Town" also got a huge response, and then the band came
back out for the inevitable "Rain on the Scarecrow." It's hard to say for sure,
but he's probably played this at every single Farm Aid. It's essentially the
official anthem of the event. Sadly, the lyrics remain disturbingly topical
nearly 30 years after it was written. "Paper in Fire," "Crumblin' Down" and
"Pink Houses" turned the entire amphitheatre into a giant party, and Mellencamp
was clearly having a blast. Somehow or other, a lifetime of chain-smoking
cigarettes hasn't done much to hurt his voice. (The same goes for Willie Nelson,
but he's usually smoking something else.)
Mellencamp is a born crowd-pleaser, but Neil Young has a different agenda. He
made that very clear when a heckler attempted to interrupt his speech about the
importance of switching from gasoline to biofuels. "Did I hear someone say 'come
on, let's go?'" he said. "I work for me." Those four words essentially sum up
Neil Young's entire career, and his seven-song set was solid proof that he has
little regard for expectations.
A run of the show provided to the media shows that the crew was instructed to
put microphones for Dave Matthews, Pegi Young and John Mellencamp on the stage
in addition to amps for Willie Nelson and Mickey Raphael. A second microphone
was visible, but Neil ultimately decided to play the entire 30-minute set solo
acoustic. He opened with Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and then went into
Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain." He was introduced by John Mellencamp as
"one of the greatest songwriters of his generation," and Neil seemed determined
to prove he had a lot of competition for that title.
With the exception of quick run-throughs of "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold,"
Young's entire set was devoted to songs by Young's favorite songwriters. He had
never played any of the songs publicly besides "Blowin' in the Wind." Virtually
nobody recognized Ivory Joe Hunter's "Since I Met You Baby" or "Changes" by Phil
Ochs." Thanks to the famous cover by Rod Stewart, most everyone knew Tim
Hardin's "Reason to Believe." Young played an absolutely stellar version of the
tune on the organ, though he nearly abandoned the effort after the first few
Clearly a little flustered by the song, he stood up after the initial attempt
and returned to his ongoing rant about biofuels and fracking. "Colorado could be
heading down the highway towards Albany," he said. "If you don't believe me,
you're living in denial." He then returned to the organ and finished the song.
Before ending the set with Ochs' "Changes," Young said that he spoke
backstage with Pete Seeger about the troubled Sixties protest singer. Seeger
regretted not doing more to help Ochs before he committed suicide in 1976, and
Young argued that there was little he could have done, comparing it to his
efforts to contact Kurt Cobain in his last days. "Phil Ochs was one of the
greatest songwriters who ever lived," said Young. "He wrote this next song,
which some of you have probably never heard." Young almost always plays
"Homegrown" at Farm Aid, but this year he had other things on his mind.
Per tradition, the show ended with Willie Nelson. Lukas Nelson sat in for the
entire set, and they ran through classics like "Crazy" and "Whiskey River,"
though the highlight was a duet between the father and son on Eddie Vedder's
"Just Breathe." They ended with "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" and "I Saw
the Light," featuring nearly every performer of the night. The crowd screamed
for more, but after a round of hugs, everyone left the stage and the P.A. played
the Band's version of "I Shall Be Released."
It was pouring rain by this point, but a shockingly high percentage of the
crowd remained on their soggy corner of the lawn until the very end. Nobody
seemed the least bit unhappy with the experience as they trudged to their cars
across puddles and mud.