Farm Aid 2009: Full review from Verizon Wireless Amphitheater

By: Kevin C. Johnson

Farm Aid finally planted its deep seeds in St. Louis for the first time Sunday, when the big benefit event unfolded all day at a sold-out Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.

It was a long day of messages – just say “no” to factory farming and “yes” to family farming. The point couldn’t be stressed enough it seemed, whether via the interactive Homegrown Village area, the concessions, the PA system on the concourse, and the performers from the stage.

“We want our farms back,” Young said at the top of his set. Later, he said “I hope you’re enjoying Farm Aid. We’d enjoy it more if you’d give us some money.”

But it was the music, not the messages necessarily, that packed the joint, the wall-to-wall rock and country music. And Farm Aid overflowed with it, culminating in headliners Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Dave Matthews, and John Mellencamp, all Farm Aid board members.

Long before getting to those performances, or sets by the likes of Wilco, Gretchen Wilson, and Jason Mraz, the early crowd got a full lineup and up-and-comers, names such as the Blackwood Quartet, Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real, Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses, Jamey Johnson, and Prosphorescent, who were joined by Nelson during “Reasons to Quit.”

Early acts were on and off like clockwork, doing brief sets during this well-oiled machine, though waits between acts grew noticeable longer between the headliners’ sets. Still, the show moved along as it needed to and as it should considering it has been taking place around the country since 1985.

The first bit of star power, save for some introductions and that guest bit from Nelson, came with area dweller Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers, in a front man role these days as he treated the crowd to staples such as “Who’s That Lady,” “Shout,” and a slice of “Amazing Grace.”

Wilson, another one of our own, followed an impressively country Jamey Johnson with her own brand of country on “Here for the Party,” “There’s a Place in the Whiskey,” and “Work Hard, Play Harder,” a song she’s releasing on her own label.

Wilson said she didn’t have a lot of time and would keep her comments short, but did make a point to dedicate the jab that is “California Girls” to Paris Hilton. She capped her set with “All Jacked Up” and “Redneck Woman.”

“We’re Wilco. We’re here for the party as well,” Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy said during the band’s set, which opened with “Bull Black Nova.” The day’s hip quotient was raised instantly with Wilco, and it appeared many in the crowd came to see the Chicago’s alt-rockers, who were added to the bill later.

After making a Belleville, Il, joke, Tweedy asked if people still go to Laclede’s Landing. “Yes? No? Well they did back in the day when we used to say back on the day,” said Tweedy, perfectly introducing “Heavy Metal Drummer.”

Mraz, the big pop act of Farm Aid this year, opened with the light reggae of “The Remedy,” along with “Never Too Late,” and “Anything You Want,” which he capped with the line “There grows the neighborhood.”

Those songs, along with set-best offerings such as “The Dynamo of Volition” and his cover of “Spirit in the Sky,” eventually took him to his ubiquitous “I’m Yours.”

Mraz encouraged fans to stand up and not worry about what anyone thinks when it comes to activism. “Raise your voice to participate in something,” he said. “It’s a good chance to flex those activist muscles.”

The night’s other big hip attraction, Matthews, came with Tim Reynolds. Matthews told the crowd “look at you all looking all good” in his deep drawl before performing “Funny the Way It Is,” “Grace is Gone,” and “You & Me.” The acoustic setting suited Matthews exceptionally well.

Farm Aid daddy Nelson joined him on vocals and guitar for “Gravedigger,” the night’s first big star-powered collaboration. Matthews said the quicker we get behind the things Nelson believes in, the better we will all be.

After his first song, Matthews apologized for his voice sounding extra deep, saying he felt a little scared walking out on stage, that he had a frog in his throat, and that frog was scared as well.

Mellencamp, with his heartland-friendly rock, opened most appropriately with “Pink Houses,” followed by “Paper in Fire,” “Small Town,” “Rain on the Scarecrow,” and “Check It Out.” There was also new song “Save Some Time to Dream,” which he recorded in a Baptist church in Savannah, Ga.

Just before “The Authority Song,” Mellencamp introduced his young teen-age son Speck on guitar, and said he was in the band for the night trying out.

Mellencamp said he had no idea what he, Nelson and Young were getting involved with when they started Farm Aid, and that calling something progress doesn’t make right, a dig at factory farming.

Young graced the crowd with opening song “Sail Away,” as well as “Long May You Run,” “Field of Opportunity,” and “Hold Back the Tears,” which he explained had nothing to do with farming.

Young further cemented his name as a necessary Farm Aid staple during his set with statement after statement in support of family farming. “We’re here to make a difference and you can make it without us, but you’ve got the biggest vote with your dollar bill,” said Young, wearing a Stop Factory Farming T-shirt.

Talking about his own wardrobe malfunction, Young ripped his T-shirt to reveal a green Go Family Farming T-shirt underneath, then welcomed Nelson on stage with him for “Homegrown,” where they sang of planting that bulb and letting it grow.

Nelson’s closing set, featuring his fiery guitarist son Lukas Nelson, could’ve consisted of nothing more than the great “Always on My Mind” and “On the Road Again” and fans might’ve left pleased. But he also delivered on “Shoeshine Man,” “Crazy,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” and “Angel Flying Close to the Ground.”

Billy Joe Shaver, who had a slot much earlier in the day that he missed, joined Nelson for “You Asked Me To.”

The big finale, rumored to bring back all the headliners, failed to do so. But the gospel-themed segment did bring back the Blackwood Quartet and Prosphorescent for “I’ll Fly Away” and “Amazing Grace.”

Farm Aid is the longest-running benefit concert series, and has raised nearly $35 million since forming in Champaign, Il., in 1985.

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Check out STLtoday's live blog concert notes here. This article includes the order the artists played and would be helpful when watching the webcast.