“All of the things we’re talking about here are all about power; it’s all about corporations telling us what to do. The corporations are forcing our farmers to use pesticides. They own a lot of the farmers’ land. They’re supplying seeds to the farmers from Monsanto, seeds that you have to use their pesticides to make things out of.” – Neil Young
“I gotta tell you, I love fresh tomatoes. I love fresh cucumbers. I like cheese. And I like fresh milk. I like coffee, and I like beer.” – Dave Matthews
RALEIGH, NC—At this year’s Farm Aid, co-founders Neil Young, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp laid down the hits plus some on the state of planet Earth. Combining forces for the 29th time in Raleigh, North Carolina, they were helped out by Jack White, Gary Clark Jr., Todd Snider, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and members of the Nelson clan that interwove themselves throughout the day’s festivities and turning it into a family affair.
Farm Aid began in 1985 in response to a comment Bob Dylan made at Live Aid regarding the takeover of the family farm by agribusiness. Since then it’s taken on the organic and local food movements as it continues to lobby on behalf of family farms, yet the fight still goes on. Politics took a back seat until Neil Young’s solo set after a brief stab at some greatest hits with “Heart Of Gold,” “Comes A Time” and “Pocahontas.”
He then took on the politically-charged stuff that he’s been playing on tour, most recently with the turbo-charged Crazy Horse over in Europe this past summer. Dressed in an Earth t-shirt, Young paced the stage like a pissed off hippie between takes, adding, “We’re up against a massive conspiracy, and a government controlled by corporations.” He then outed Senator Richard Burr, who voted down a recent farm bill. Boos followed and he responded, “Take that booing to the voting booth next time you go,” and, “The only way we’re gonna change it is to go to the top and clean it up.”
“Standing In The Light Of Love,” “Mother Earth” that he played on organ and “Whose Gonna Stand Up And Save The Earth” were next. On it, Young shouted out, “Who’s gonna stand up!” as the crowd stood up one by one and chimed in, “Save the Earth!” It was a beautifully hokey moment indeed.
By the time “Rockin’ In The Free World” went down with Willie’s sons Lukas and Micah on guitars and vocals, Young was a spent force and sauntered off stage with the sanctified look of a rock and roll preacher. Protector of the planet, singer-songwriter extraordinaire, provocateur or plain old citizen Joe saying his peace, take your pick. Young’s been standing up to the corporate goliaths and big government gone wrong since the ’60s (along with brethren Crosby, Stills & Nash) and putting himself on the line ever since.
Jack White’s set was a blood-curdling stomp out that combined the sonic scowl and thunderous howl of guitars to the bombastic fury of a rhythmic machine that pulled at the essence of every genre of American music out there into a glorious rage that was hard to describe. He twisted and barreled through some White Stripes numbers starting with “Icky Thump” and ending with “Seven Nation Army,” adding multi-dimensions to the original’s primitive understatedness. This time around, they were delivered as dynamic launching pads to the man’s grandiose and overblown musical vision that countered the rest of the day’s more organic and low-keyed delivery. He looked like a castoff from a David Lynch flick in black suspenders and Elvis sideburns. Violinist Lillie Mae Rische countered White’s staunchy and jagged riffage with her earthly tones that softened and humanized his high-octane rattle.
Dave Matthews’ jumpy, acoustified jumble was balanced out by the melodic fretwork of guitarist Tim Reynolds. He colored the frenetic strumming with cascades of slinky notes that busted through the straight-ahead bang out of Matthews’ busy playing. Opening with “Bartender,” they played five more before their last call of “Dancing Nancies.”
Retro artist Gary Clark Jr. played an incredible set as he straddled his Gibson SG and pounded out an updated take on the blues. His fine backup band cranked out the driving pulse that Clark whipped his leads around on the Robert Petway cover, “Catfish Blues.” Farm Aid returnee Jamey Johnson plied his outlaw country with the gutsy twang and drawl of a guy who just did time. Slow and timey, his band took on the Patsy Cline opener, “I Fall To Pieces,” and ended with George Strait’s “Give It Away.”
John Mellencamp’s set took on Middle America as he played the hits that made him famous, as well as the roots rockers on his forthcoming album. However, “Rain On The Scarecrow” from his 1985 album was the battle cry for the night. The song jumpstarted the movement back then and it still sounds relevant today.
Farm Aid closer Willie Nelson began his set with “Whiskey River.” He then rattled them off one after another like a human jukebox up there. Nelson’s voice and guitar playing were stellar as he pulled notes off his nylon-stringed guitar. For the final number, multi-instrumentalist beat musician David Amram, Nelson’s sons, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and cast and crew at Farm Aid joined onstage for a rousing shout out of “I Saw The Light,” ending yet another glorious Farm Aid.