No Depression Blog: Farm Aid 2009 Show Review

By Steve Leftridge

Something unusual was present at the press conference before the Farm Aid 2009 concert in St. Louis: a sense of optimism. Obviously, the situation in which family farmers in America find themselves is bleak, but the activists, farmers, and artists—including Farm Aid’s musical board members, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews—insisted that hopeful signs were on the horizon. First, people across the country are getting behind local-food movements, being educated to the healthful, economical, and ethical benefits of consuming food produced in and around one’s own zip code. Second, Farm Aid officials pointed to the obvious change in the attitude toward family-farm causes coming out of the new Administration in Washington: “We have an open door,” said Executive Director Carolyn Mugar.

Still, enormous challenges remain, namely addressing the ongoing dairy crisis by convincing the USDA to set milk prices that cover production costs for small farmers and to stop issuing loans to corporate farms, whose overproduction drives prices so low that family farms are unable to compete. Willie Nelson, easily the most adored person present—not an unusual position for Willie to find himself, but particularly true here—spoke to those gathered about eating good food as a kid growing up in Abbott, Texas, and the importance of kids today having access to natural, fresh food. After several moving speeches from the artists, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, dairy farmers, local owners of farmers markets, etc., the conference adjourned, and we poured out into the Verizon Amphitheater to take in the ten-hour Farm Aid, the 24th year for America’s longest-running annual charity concert.  

John Mellencamp wasted no time working this crowd, launching immediately into “Pink Houses” as the crowd surged in the presence of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, whose songs were democratizers that everyone knew by heart. John came with a versatile seven-piece band, including Mirian Sturm on violin and Mellencamp lifer Mike Wanchic on guitar, who defaulted to bluesier, moodier versions of his hits. And while Coug opened with the a one-two punch, following “Pink Houses” with a searing take on “Paper in Fire”, he wasn’t just throwing haymakers. He played a solo-acoustic song, “Save Some Time to Dream” from his upcoming record, along with urgent, go-for-broke versions of “Troubled Land” and the jackhammer punch of “If I Die Sudden” from last year’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom. Mellencamp worked the crowd hard in his familiar stage hustle—a lot of closed-fist strutting, gum chewing, sleeve rolling, vest tugging, hair mussing, etc. The set ended with a rousing “Authority Song”, which had the audience swirling and sorry to see set end. To be sure, Mellencamp sang (in great voice) and performed with the fire of a hungry rocker with nothing left to prove but plenty left to say.

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