Farm Aid @ Saratoga Performing Art Center

“The farmers are on the front lines of climate change, and climate change is THE issue of the 21st century. It’s a bigger way of looking at what we’re all doing here. It’s about getting the carbon out of the sky and back into the earth.” – Neil Young

“We talk about saving the family farmer, but the fact is, it’s the family farmer who will save us all.” – Willie Nelson

“Don’t frack our farmlands.” – Dave Matthews

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY—Politics and music combined forces at this year’s Farm Aid as board members Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews spread the gospel to the 25,000-plus sold-out crowd at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) just north of Albany.

Farm Aid’s genesis came out of a comment made by Bob Dylan at the Live Aid show in 1985 in response to corporate America’s full-throttled takeover of the small family farm. Since then, Farm Aid’s gotten greener and taken on the good food movement as well that encourages organic farming practices as well as eating and buying locally grown produce. Factory farms are still a problem and the pesticide industry still poisons us daily, however, an educated public is still the best remedy in the fight against the corporate goliaths out there ruling the land and our politicians.

The headliners all had something to say, however. Neil Young was the most vocal, as he added biodiesels and fracking into his long-winded chat with the crowd between songs and meandered on stage like a pissed off hippie trying to figure out what song to perform next.

Young’s attack got so windy and heated he was heckled by someone in the crowd to “get on with it,” and responded, “Did I hear someone say, ‘Come on, let’s go?'” then replied, “I work for me. I don’t work for you.” A tireless champion to the cause since the ‘60s, Young steered clear of corporate sponsorship himself, can’t be bought out, and lets the muse take him to that happy place. A maverick in an age of conformity, he’s pissed off a lot of people along the way, and that’s why we love him.

His 45-minute set was an acoustified one with the lights on low and one of his first since Crazy Horse’s tour this summer in Europe that was abruptly canceled due to guitarist Poncho’s hand injury. It was a low-key affair and in stark contrast to the Horse’s loud and bombastic crunch at last year’s Farm Aid.

Opening with Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” Neil lumbered through a shaky set of classics like “Old Man,” “Heart Of Gold” and played some covers including Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” and Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe.” On it he started, then stopped and rambled, then found his groove on organ and finished it off. He fingerpicked “Changes” by Phil Ochs, who he introduced as “one of the greatest songwriters that ever lived.” “It’s a wordy one,” Young added from the stage.

Mellencamp took on Americana with an incredible set of his hits, including “Jack And Diane,” “Paper In Fire,” and “Rain On The Scarecrow,” one of the songs that jumpstarted the Farm Aid movement 28 years ago. The hits just kept on coming and Mellencamp beamed by set’s end soaking up the sold-out crowd’s standing ovation.

He declared after his set, “I’m so humbled, to bring out Pete Seeger!” who sang “If I Had A Hammer,” then was joined by Nelson, Matthews and Young on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” “Friends, I’m 94, and don’t have much voice left,” Seeger said, before stating, “Here is a song I think you may know. I think if we sing it together, we’ll make it a good song.” The Hudson Valley resident clawed, then plucked his banjo into the heart and soul of everyone at SPAC and added a new line, “New York was meant to be frack-free,” as the Farm Aid founders chimed in like choir boys.

Dave Matthews’ set with Tim Reynolds was a punchy stampede accentuated by flourishing notes up and down the fretboard that colored the tunes’ nervous, homespun energy. Their guitars molted into a tightly woven orchestral unit of one as Matthews’ singing, driving guitars and Reynolds’ cool and tasty noodlings offered up a porch side and organic revue to the Dave Matthews Band’s jumpy funk.

Jack Johnson played a crowd-pleasing set of his surfside sing-alongs, including a new one, “Radiate.” Outlaw country rocker Jamey Johnson took us back to the day when Waylon, Willie and Johnny Cash ruled the land with whiskey-soaked odes to juke joints and hard times. His set was the real deal, as his band was a slide-guitared, bad-assed and alcohol-laced last call at your favorite dive bar.

Willie’s son, Lucas, appeared throughout the day, adding his stellar chops on guitar and a singing style reminiscent of pappy. He played guitar with his teeth à la Hendrix on Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love” and added a youthful vibe to the day’s old-time folksiness.

Pegi Young played a short set with hubby Neil on guitars and a backup of Rick Rosas on bass and Spooner Oldham on pedal steel from Young’s country band. On “Obsession,” she paced the stage, as the band pounded out some ‘80s style riffage.

Willie Nelson was the closer, and he played it like it was his last, as he always does. On “Whisky River,” “Crazy” and “On The Road Again,” the pigtailed dynamo banged out the hits toward the grand finale of “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” and “I Saw The Light,” which had every performer on stage singing along. By the time The Band’s “I Shall Be Released” played over the loudspeakers, ending the night, ear-to-ear grins to the power of music and community prevailed.