One month ago today Ruoff Music Center in Noblesville, Indiana hosted the Farm Aid benefit festival – and this year’s was glorious, nostalgic, and refreshing of a musical event with legends of all kind and all caliber.
“We have a choice and it’s really the people on the street who are going to make a difference. The family farmers are doing everything they can do. But without the people behind the farmers, it’s not going to work. People need to support the farmers,” Neil Young explained at the Farm Aid press conference. This event supports, highlights, and celebrates the farming community.
At the 38th annual Farm Aid, musicians paid homage to the family farm in a 12-hour marathon of music. Streaming online and on SiriusXM radio, board members Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Dave Matthews, and Margo Price played hour-long sets as special guests (including Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Ann Wilson, and Sturgill Simpson) rocked the heartland. A short surprise set by Bob Dylan was included in this, too. Bobby Weir and the Wolf Bros., Nathaniel Rateliff, String Cheese Incident, Jim Isley band, Clayton Anderson, and Lucas Nelson rounded out the bill of Americana at its roots-rockin’ best.
There was a buzz in the air from the start that Dylan might show after Neil Young’s short, four song set – and he did. Looking like the electrified Dylan that took on the world order in 1966, he straddled a highchair with his Fender guitar for the first time since 2012 and creaked out “Maggie’s Farm,” “Positively 4th Street,” and “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Backed by three members of the Heartbreakers – who joined him at the first Farm Aid in 1985 – they laid down the bare and punchy rhythms to Dylan’s snide unpredictability.
There was no mumbling this time around or hiding behind the keyboards. The 82-year-old Minnesota native was front-and-center taking on the jovial and polite crowd. The band played from a rumbling shuffle into a bluesy romp in its short set. Pausing and scatting through the verses, Dylan delivered them with the wobbly edge and style of a bluesman playfully meandering offbeat while keeping ex-Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and drummer Steve Ferrone on notice.
Hot off recent dates at The Roxy in Los Angeles with Crazy Horse celebrating a performance 50 years ago in support of the Tonight’s the Night album and his recent Northwest solo tour, expectations were high for Neil Young’s set. Returning to Farm Aid for the first time since 2020, Young sauntered onstage with acoustic guitar in hand; rumpled jeans, a flannel shirt, and a trucker’s hat had him looking a lot like a farmer.
He opened with ” Comes a Time” then turned “Love Earth” into an ode to the planet, then he ended with the crowd pleaser “Heart of Gold.” Taking on factory farms, corrupt politicians, and the corporate food machine, Young did it all with the nod and wink of yer favorite Uncle.
Bobby Weir and the Wolf Bros kicked their set off with “Truckin,” followed it with “Dark Star,” and ended with the Bo Diddley-inspired beats of “Not Fade Away.” A string and brass quintet added a symphonic edge to the band’s guitars on the spacey “Dark Star” that molted and meandered into a 20-minute mantra just like the old days of the Grateful Dead. Nashville-based Sturgill Simpson added some country to the band’s psychedelic jammies alongside Lucas Nelson as Margo Price sang background vocals reminiscent of Donna Jean Godchaux’s best work from the seventies (also with the Grateful Dead).
John Mellencamp played up his rocking eighties anthems at his first appearance in his home state in 15 years. “Paper in Fire,” “Lonely Ol’ Night,” and “Rain on the Scarecrow” jumpstarted the first Farm Aid back in 1985. On “Crumblin’ Down,” the band segued into a three-chord vamp on “Gloria” and back as Mellencamp paced back and forth onstage, working the crowd like a boy returning from rock and roll boot camp. He ended his set with “Pink Houses” as the crowd hoisted beers and fist pumping salutes to the boy from Seymour, Indiana.
Tim Reynolds noodled his way up and down the fretboard adding moody dynamics to his bandmate Dave Matthews’ busy strumming. They gelled on “Rye Whisky ” and “Satellite” as a dynamic duo when Reynolds held back before firing off acoustic bolts of lightning to Matthews’ steady pulse. An acoustic rendering off the new “Monsters” went down nicely. Meanwhile, “Crush” left babies and adults alike weeping.
Ann Wilson joined Colts owner and philanthropist Jim Irsey’s band after their Warren Zevon opener “Lawyers, Guns and Money” for the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” and “Barracuda”. She aced the high notes and howled through the loud growling mix like a badass diva dressed in gothic black. Kenny Wayne Shepherd took on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” playing David Gilmour’s Black Strat that he ripped thru on the coda to the crowd’s jaw dropping and hushed silence.
Nathaniel Rateliff provided some Memphis-style hillbilly soul while Margo Price kept it country throwing in some poppy power chords and sugar laced harmonies along the way. String Cheese offered up tasty, happy go lucky bluegrass from the Rockies.
Willie Nelson and his sons Lucas and Micah joined him for the night’s closing set. They started with “Whiskey River,” ended with “Will the Circle be Unbroken” and Mac Davis’ “It’s Hard to be Humble.” It was then that the cast and crew returned onstage and celebrated the American Farmer and fans for yet another glorious Farm Aid. Thanks, Willie and friends!