Farm Aid @ First Merit Bank Pavilion

“I won’t quit fighting for the farmer.” – Neil Young


CHICAGO, IL—At this year’s Farm Aid, founders Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young joined forces for yet another showdown against agribusiness, factory farms and their brethren in our nation’s agricultural heartland.

A lot has changed since the fest began 30 years ago when corporate America started gobbling up family farms. Bob Dylan’s remark at Live Aid sparked the movement that its founders took to the heartland in Champaign, Illinois, all those years ago. Family farms are still in crisis yet the movements taken on the organic and buy local food movement as well as top dog corporate ghoul Monsanto corp. that Neil Young wailed into on his recent tour.

At this year’s Farm Aid, politics kinda took a back seat to the music. Dave Matthews, Jack Johnson, Old Medicine Show, Jamey Johnson, Imagine Dragons and others played stellar sets as the evening built up to the grand finale of Willie Nelson and family on the classic “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?”

Neil Young’s set was a tour de force blowout against Monsanto and their wicked ways. Opening up with “Workin’ Man” and then “A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop” from his latest album, Monsanto Years, Young let his music do the talking. His seven-song set meandered on across the plains and back down south to “Alabama,” a tune from Harvest last played in 1977. He debuted a new one, “I Won’t Quit,” and ended his set with a smokey blowout of the Crazy Horse number “Love And Only Love” that left more than a few ears a-buzzin’ as Willie Nelson’s sons, Lukas and Micah, cranked out the tunes grungy riffage.

John Mellencamp laid down his take on Americana. No “Jack And Diane” this time around but a badass “Rain On The Scarecrow” that plowed the way to the cause at the first Farm Aid back in 1985. Dave Matthews’ cheeky boy next door vibe elicited more than a few wedding proposals from the starry-eyed ladies in the crowd as he spun some yarns about a spider landing on his face during his set with Tim Reynolds.

Starting with “What Would You Say” and ending it with “Crush,” Matthews and Reynolds turned their dueling guitars into a 12-string orchestra of punchy rhythms accentuated by some tasty dynamics that kept the tunes big and bouncy.

Jack Johnson’s set was a homegrown affair straight out of the Hawaiian islands that he calls home. On “Bubble Toes” he forgot some of the words that keyboardist Zach Gill helped him out with as the tune melted into the Bo Diddley bop of “Not Fade Away” that had fans swaying in the balmy breeze coming off Lake Michigan. Johnson played an ode to Willie Nelson written specifically for the day called “Willie Got Me Stoned And Stole All My Money” that left more than a few inhalers giggling in its wake.

The lone holdout of outlaw country, Jamey Johnson, played a solo set on stage as he took on the battles of the drink, love and divorce country style. Imagine Dragons’ dynamic bangout got the crowd on its feet as the sun set and singer Dan Reynolds took to the floor. Combining the tribal thunder of some bombastic drums and the virtuosity of guitarist Wayne “Wing” Sermon’s tangled guitar runs, they were a dynamic unit of loud, poppy anthem rock.

“Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” and Hank Williams’ “I See The Light” ended the night as Willie and Family were joined by Neil Young and assorted players for a rousing sing-along that the crowd joined in on, ending yet another Farm Aid.