It’s a bit hard to believe that Farm Aid has been a thing for nearly three and half decades now, but it’s stronger than ever. In its 33th rendition, old friends Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young (along with recruit/”newcomer at 17 years” Dave Matthews) continue to exert their time and energy to raise money and awareness towards the plight of the family farmer. Consolidation and large-scale industrial farming continues unabated, and the press conference before the show started highlighted personal stories of local farmers as well as the viewpoints of the founders. While all of them took turns with the mic to expound on their feelings, Mellencamp in particular firing off a vitriolic, profanity rant that was heartfelt, Neil Young said it best when he exhorted people that the best thing you can do is always stop at a farm stand. Bring your kids, talk to the farmers, buy some good food that’s not churned out by some mega-monolithic corporation, laden with chemicals and sketchy, unsustainable agricultural techniques.
The day started with a Native American dance/chant via the Wisdom Indian Dancers, and settled quickly into a very comfortable groove for the rest of it. This particular incarnation benefited greatly from the coinciding Outlaw Music Festival tour, a tour that featured Nelson as headliner as well as his sons’ band Promise Of The Real with Lukas leading the band and Micah chipping in on guitar. Three more rapidly emerging country stars also came along for the show. Margo Price is quickly coming up the scene as a modern day twist of Janice Joplin and Bobbie Gentry, and Sturgill Simpson turned in a fiery, blues-soaked set that veered markedly away from his earlier bluegrass sound and was just as impressive. Finally, the southern soul sound is alive and well with Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats, part gospel hoedown and celebratory house party.
Kacey Musgraves took on the mantle of modern Nashville country/pop, singing with a sly cool, her band and her featuring the most inspired sartorial choices of the day. Chris Stapleton is another voice that’s at the top tier of the modern country sound, finally breaking out on his own after writing hits for others. His set delivered a deep and knowing nod to the roadhouse blues side of things. The hirsute Jamey Johnson was equally as authentic to fore bearers, but with a simple delivery of just an acoustic guitar and his expressive drawl. As the daylight gave way to dusk, the headliners got an hour to do their thing. Matthews came out with fellow sidekick Tim Reynolds, strumming up a storm via their combined twelve strings. Mellencamp still had an edge when he returned to the stage, playing some of his hits like “Check It Out” and “Jack And Diane” with real verve.
The last two sets went to the elder statesmen, with Young backed by the Nelson sons as has been the case for the last few years. Much like his idol Bob Dylan, over his storied career Young has made it very clear that he does what he wants and does not give a single fuck as to what anyone else might think of it. But, we didn’t get the recalcitrant, prickly Young tonight. He trotted out some of his biggest hits, like “Heart Of Gold” and the sadly-still-relevant paean against fascist governments of “Ohio,” but did sprinkle in some tunes for the diehard Rusties such as the solo “Tell Me Why” that started his set, and the rolled-up sleeves workmanship rock songs “Powderfinger” and “Love And Only Love.” Mr. Young, long may you run. Nelson closed out the set with a run through his familiar songbook and a trio of Hank Williams songs, flanked by his sons who had a busy day on stage. Nelson has been unwavering voice for freedom and at 85 years old, it’s hard to think of someone who embodies the term living legend more. The night closed with friends Young, Price and Rateliff joining in for trad chestnut “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” and a rousing version of the old gospel song “I’ll Fly Away.” A fitting cap to a great event and remember- always stop at a farm stand!
Photos from the day:
Primarily based in Boston, Massachusetts, Tim Bugbee is no stranger to traveling throughout the country or overseas to capture the best live music photos.