Playbackstl: Farm Aid Concert Review

Written by Amy Burger - Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, St. Louis

The weather gods were smiling on St. Louis Sunday for the Farm Aid benefit concert, held for the first time in its nearly 25 year history in Missouri at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. The dark clouds and harsh winds of Saturday blew through giving way to bright sun, mild fall temps and crystal clear blue skies - the perfect backdrop for a day of music in the heartland.

The fact that Farm Aid has never been held in Missouri is surprising, considering the vast number of family farms throughout the region. Many of these family farmers were in attendance, enjoying the sounds, selling organic foods and educating concert attendees about their cause in the "Homegrown Village." The regular fare in the amphitheater's concessions was replaced with organic alternatives (free range chicken tenders) and bright red shirts emblazoned with "Stop Factory Farms" dotted the landscape.

The sold out crowd began pouring in as the gates opened at noon, causing a bit of a human traffic jam at the entrance, which thinned out by mid-afternoon. Early acts included St. Louis resident Ernie Isley (of The Isley Brothers) and his band The Jam performing a brief but fun set including "Who's That Lady," "Shout" and "Amazing Grace;" as well as country crooner Jamey Johnson and "Redneck Woman" Gretchen Wilson (another "local") performing that hit along with anthems like "All Jacked Up" and "Here for the Party." Wilson clearly was, as she slugged from a fifth of Jack Daniels without a flinch during her mid-day set.

The early performances were extremely brief (and turned around very quickly in between), some lasting only around 30 minutes. A huge fan of Wilco and eagerly awaiting their performance, I was a bit disappointed that their set consisted of only six songs (albeit good ones). It seemed like just as they were really getting going, they were done - a tease that left hardcore fans yearning for more. Seeing a band like Wilco in a huge amphitheater in a festival environment (with a not all too enthusiastic crowd) undoubtedly falls short of seeing them in a smaller club or theater; but still it had its moments.

"We're Wilco and we're here for the party too," declared front man Jeff Tweedy as the band opened with "Black Bull Nova" from their latest self-titled release, Nels Cline's nimble guitar skills on full display. They then moved into a pair of songs from Sky Blue Sky, "Impossible Germany" and "Hate it Here."

Making reference to previous performer Gretchen Wilson's big hit, Tweedy asked the audience "Is there anyone here who is not a redneck woman? You don't have to be a redneck just because you're from around here." Unfortunately, the audience response was unenthusiastic, as it turned out the redneck contingency was larger than the Wilco contingency at this particular show.

Not surprisingly Tweedy paid homage to his local roots - giving a shout out to his hometown of Belleville, Ill., and playing the band's two most recognizably St. Louis songs, "Heavy Metal Drummer" (which references The Landing) and "Casino Queen," before rounding out the set with the Woody Guthrie tune "Hoodoo Voodoo."

Next up was soulful pop crooner Jason Mraz who couldn't be cuter and seemed to fully engage the entire audience for probably the first time all day. His brief, but powerful set included "The Remedy," "Never Too Late," "Anything You Want," the funky "The Dynamo of Volition" and a cover of the Norman Greenbaum hit "Spirit in the Sky." To the screaming delight of fans (definitely skewing on the female side), he closed out with his catchy hit "I'm Yours."

Dave Matthews paired up sans band with his old friend Tim Reynolds for an acoustic set that was good, although very much on the mellow side. Matthews and Reynolds highlighted tunes from DMB's most recent work, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, including"Funny the Way it Is," "Baby Blue" and "You & Me, as well as the haunting "Grace is Gone" from Busted Stuff. The most engaging moment of their set came when Farm Aid "president" Willie Nelson came out and joined in on guitar and vocals for Matthews' intense "Grave Digger" while a full harvest moon rose over the lawn as if on cue. Finally, Dave gave his old-school fans a treat with DMB classic "Dancing Nancies."

Although I was thoroughly enjoying the combination of excellent weather, good company and fine music, up until this point in the show, I wasn't completely "feeling it." The performances were certainly good, but their brevity possibly and somewhat mellow nature made them lack the power and intensity that one would expect should represent this uniquely American benefit concert with a nearly 25 year history . . . and then it happened.

The moment that Farm Aid became Farm Aid, at least for this concertgoer, was the moment John Mellencamp hit the stage and tore into the opening riffs of "Pink Houses." That is when I felt it. Somehow, although I grew up listening to John "Cougar" Mellencamp in my Central Illinois hometown only 45 miles from the very first Farm Aid in Champaign, and less than a day's drive from Mellencamp's own hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, I somehow missed ever seeing him in concert. This clearly was a huge mistake.

Like no one had yet to do that day, Mellencamp commanded the entire amphitheater with songs that are the very embodiment of Farm Aid and all it stands for, songs that are so truly American, and in particular, Midwestern. I expected him to be good, but it completely took me by surprise how I literally got goosebumps hearing him play "Pink Houses," as he catapulted me right back to 1984 in that small Illinois town.

Throughout his nearly hour-long set, Mellencamp proved why he was so deservedly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, tearing through hits like "Paper in Fire" and "Check it Out." An acoustic version of "Small Town" was a treat, with Mellencamp getting playful with the lyrics, at one point singing, "My wife was 13 years old when I wrote this song in a small town."

As powerful as Mellencamp's voice and guitar is, he was nearly upstaged at times by stellar violinist Miriam Sturm, who performed a sweet instrumental duet with keyboardist Troye Kinnett on accordion before the band launched into the hard-driving "Rain on the Scarecrow." This song could pretty much be the anthem for Farm Aid with Mellencamp's gruff voice snarling powerful lyrics about the plight of the small family farmer, "The crops we grew last summer weren't enough to pay the loans, Couldn't buy the seed to plant this spring and the farmers bank foreclosed."

Mellencamp invited his 14-year-old guitarist son, Speck, to "try out for the band," for crowd-pleaser "Authority Song" to closer out his set. He introduced the song by saying, "I know this isn't really the best song I ever did, but I also know that probably every single one of you have sung along to it at some point." He was right, and the crowd eagerly sang along to it again. Amid screams and cheers, Mellencamp left the audience by reiterating a statement he made during the event's earlier press conference, "Just because you call something progress, it doesn't make it right."

Next up was Farm Aid veteran and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Neil Young, whose sweet and mellow set kicked off with "Sail Away," his wife and backup singer Pegi at his side. He brought out fellow "board member" Willie Nelson for the funky-folksy "Homegrown" (which seemed a double-entendre given Willie's outspoken support of marijuana legalization.)

One of the evening's highlights was Young's performance of classic "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere," from his 1969 album of the same name with Crazy Horse. Backed by incredible pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith and Spooner Oldham on keys, as well as bassist Rick Rosas and drummer Karl Himmel, this song is Neil Young at his best. He closed out his set with a softly sweet "Comes a Time," his voice lilting into those haunting upper register notes that are his signature.

When "headliner" Willie Nelson finally took the stage, the night had grown bitter chilly, and the lawn began to thin out a bit with people leaving to avoid the mass exit. Nelson kicked of his set with "Whiskey River" and worked through a collection of songs spanning his impressive songwriting career including classics such as "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," "On the Road Again," "You Were Always on my Mind" and "Crazy," better known for the Patsy Cline version but a Willie tune nonetheless.

The ever-mellow Nelson closed out the day's activities with a "gospel jam" featuring members of earlier performing bands joining in on traditionals like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "I'll Fly Away" and "Amazing Grace." Disappointingly, none of Nelson's co-board members made it back out for the finale.

All in all Farm Aid was a well-run and entertaining benefit - a good time that raised money for a good cause; and it felt right at home for it to be here in Missouri, where family farms dot the landscape from St. Louis to Kansas City and down into Arkansas. Thanks to Willie, Neil, John, Dave and everyone involved for making it happen here.

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