“We’re glad to be here, but we’re very sorry we have to be here. This problem should have been solved long ago.”
So said Farm Aid co-founder and President Willie Nelson at a press conference before the 27th Farm Aid concert, at Hershey Park Stadium. The problem referenced, of course, is that family farmers are going out of business every year, while corporate farms thrive. This is a problem that Nelson and his fellow Farm Aid board founders – Neil Young and John Mellencamp – have been combating since 1985. Farm Aid always sports amazing performances, and this year was no exception. But before the music started, the three artists, along with Dave Matthews (who joined the Farm Aid board in 2001) and Jack Johnson spoke at a press conference.
Young read an emotional letter sent to him by a dairy farmer, detailing how it is nearly impossible to stay in business today, and that it will only get more difficult. Mellencamp noted that he, Young and Nelson were “young men” when they started Farm Aid, and mused that he wasn’t sure that things had gotten much better. Bryan Snyder, the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture disagreed with Mellencamp saying, “We’re all better off than we were before Farm Aid came along.”
PHOTOS: Farm Aid 2012
Jack Johnson noted that he started his own Kokua Foundation in Hawaii to educate children about the environment after being inspired by Farm Aid (and Neil Young’s other charity of choice, The Bridge School). But it was Dave Matthews who got the biggest reaction from the audience at the press event, saying that “If only a few of us are doing well and no one else is, that’s not what democracy is about… it’s only good if it’s good for everybody.”
Farm Aid invited local farmers and environmental organizations to be present and share information to audiences. This also allowed for the sale of locally grown organic food, giving an alternative to the usual concert fare of burgers and hot dogs.
Shortly after the press conference (which was really a panel discussion, the press weren’t invited to ask questions), the concert kicked off with brief sets by Austin country traditionalist Dale Watson and jam band Animal Liberation Orchestra.
At shortly after 3 pm, Pegi Young walked on stage with her band The Survivors. She was joined by Lukas Nelson (son of Willie) and Mickey Raphael (Willie’s harmonica player) for “Number 9 Train” off her current album, Bracing For Impact. That was followed by the inevitable guest appearance by her husband, Neil Young, playing guitar on “Love Like Water,” from her 2007 self-titled debut. After her set, Lukas Nelson returned to the stage with his band, Promise Of The Real, with a short set highlighted by his cover of Neil Young’s 1969 “Here We Are In The Years.”
Jamey Johnson was the first marquee name to perform, taking the stage shortly after 4 pm, to “High Cost Of Living” from his 2008 album That Lonesome Song. His set also included some classic covers: Hank Cochran’s “He’s Got You” and Johnny Paycheck’s “11 Months and 29 Days.” Of course, Johnson is a great songwriter in his own right, and making that point, he performed “Give It Away,” a song he wrote for George Strait. After that song closed the set, he said “Good to see y’all again. Enjoy Farm Aid!” It’s likely that Johnson has many more Farm Aid performances in his future (he sat in the front row during the press conference, and it’s worth noting that this was his fifth Farm Aid in a row).
Grace Potter & The Nocturnals was the first act to really get the audience to their feet. A blues-rock band who have been around for ten years, they started the show with a lot of young fans, but certainly earned a number of older ones by the end of their performance. A charismatic frontwoman with a voice somewhere between Pat Benatar and Ann Wilson of Heart, Potter is also a talented musician (playing guitar and Hammond organ) with model-like looks to boot. A full-on rock and roll band, they’re reminiscent of ‘groups like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers or Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band. Willie Nelson and Mickey Raphael joined them for “Ragged Company,” much to the delight of the audience. The stadium seemed to fill up during Potter’s set, with people wondering who the band was. It seems that Potter & The Nocturnals are just a hit or two away from stardom.
After Potter’s set, Willie returned to the stage to offer just a few words: “I’d like to introduce an old Hawaiian friend…” and the crowd went wild for Jack Johnson. The famously mellow surfer-turned- arena headliner strolled onto the stage with just his acoustic guitar for “Better Together.” A soft-spoken guy, he said “I’d like to thanks all the farmers who grow food for America.” Not just lip service, he has worked tirelessly for the aforementioned Kokua Foundation, and it’s not difficult to imagine him sitting next to Dave Matthews as a Farm Aid board member in the future. He certainly has the drawing power: the entire audience swayed back and forth, smiling while singing along to nearly all of his songs, which included “Good People,” “Sitting, Waiting, Hoping” (which also featured a bit of The Cars’ “Just What I Needed”), “Upside Down,” “Bubble Toes,” “Banana Pancakes” and “Flake.”
Kenny Chesney could easily sell out Hershey Park Stadium on his own, it’s a testament to his humility that he would return for his third Farm Aid and play beneath Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and Matthews on the bill. Indeed, he’s just wrapped a co-headlining tour with Tim McGraw, and Farm Aid marked his last show before a break. Summer was just one day in the rear-view mirror, but that didn’t stop him from breaking out some great beach anthems, starting with “Beer In Mexico,” followed by “Summertime,” “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem” and “Guitars and Tiki Bars.” Cranking out hit after hit, he paused to say “We’re all here because we know music is very powerful,” going on to thank Nelson, Matthews, Young and “the great John Mellencamp” before launching into “I Go Back,” which references Mellencamp’s classic “Jack And Diane.” Grace Potter, who opened the Chensey/McGraw tour, returned to the stage to reprise her role on their duet, “You and Tequila.” Although Chesney has a rather large band, this song featured just the two singers, playing their acoustic guitars and marked one of the many great collaborations of the day.
Although Dave Matthews has just released a new album with The Dave Matthews Band, he opted to play Farm Aid with just guitarist Tim Reynolds (the two of them frequently do acoustic duo tours together). He said, “Thanks to Willie, Neil and John and to the farmers, and all of your for supporting this, the most noble of causes,” adding “This country should be for the small farmer as much as it is for anyone else.” Matthews played passionately, and he and Reynolds made a lot of noise for just two guys with acoustic guitars. Opening with “Gravedigger” and “Stay Or Leave,” they then played some of Matthews’ more socially conscious songs, “Don’t Drink The Water” and “Funny The Way It Is.” But Matthews never loses his sense of mirth, and Farm Aid was no exception: he related a story when he visited Willie Nelson’s tour bus, and, “among other things,” discussed Willie’s songs. Matthews claimed that Willie told him that the classic song that he wrote for Patsy Cline, “Crazy,” was originally titled “Stupid.” He said that he loved the way the word “crazy” sounded, and he used it to start the song “Crush,” which he then played. Matthews’ guitar playing was excellent, but Tim Reynolds is in a class by himself, shredding up and down the fret board, he is surely one of rock’s unsung guitarists.
Matthews soon returned to the stage to introduce John Mellencamp, who kicked off his set with a rockabilly reimagining of “Authority Song,” which sounded reminiscent of “I Fought The Law.” The heartland rocker seemed to have some vocal issues, and the result was his voice sounding like a cross between Bob Dylan and Howlin’ Wolf. While it threw some fans, it gave his songs more of a sense of dread, which was appropriate on “Scarecrow” and “Paper In Fire.” But Kenny Chesney joined him on stage for “Small Town,” another highlight of the day. Mellencamp served up many of his biggest hits (he also played “Check It Out,” “Crumblin’ Down” and “Pink Houses”) but also touched on his recent catalog with “West End” and “Longest Days” (prefaced by a funny story about his grandmother who lived to 100, and who tried, unsuccessfully, to get him to take prayer seriously, saying “Life is short, even in it’s longest days”).
Mellencamp’s performance was Dylan-esque in his recasting of his hits; but Neil Young’s was Dylan-esque in his total disregard for what the audience might want to hear… which is always part of the deal when you attend a Neil Young show. Backed by his longtime band Crazy Horse, they hit the stage to “Country Home” from their 1990 reunion album Ragged Glory, a ten-minute plus guitar jam. He followed that with “Ramada Inn,” from his upcoming Psychedelic Pill. He’s been playing that song on tour lately, but at over fifteen minutes, some in the audience used the song for a bathroom break, or to begin their trek to their cars. After that, he rewarded the audience with a semi-hit: a 1967 song from his former band, Buffalo Springfield, “Mr. Soul.” Young doesn’t stick to his hits, but at Farm Aid, he sticks to the message, congratulating Pennsylvania farmers for having one of the strongest small farm systems in the country. He urged the audience to buy food locally, and not from corporate farms. “Buy a steak that didn’t spend its life in a cage, one that was not shot up with antibiotics!” He added, “ ‘Safe’ is not a good name for some of the food (corporate farms) sell. You’re here because you’re part of a great movement!” After that, he was joined by Nelson for “Homegrown”; Nelson sitting in on that song has become something of a Farm Aid tradition. The song, a sort of cheeky paean to marijuana, was released in 1977 to little acclaim, but which has gone on to take new meaning to organic farmers, and has become an unofficial anthem of Farm Aid. After that, Nelson left, and Young launched into his fifth and final song (and the third that stretched past the ten minute mark), the epic “Like A Hurricane.”
The concert was supposed to end at 11, but Nelson hit the stage shortly after that. Before playing a note, he introduced Native American musician/activist/actor John Trudell, who submitted to the audience the idea that selling industrial hemp would save a lot of family farms that have closed down. And with that, Willie launched into his classic “Whiskey River,” and in quick succession played “Still Is Still Moving To Me,” his recent hit “Beer For My Horses,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” (not “Stupid,” as Matthews joked hours earlier) and “Night Life.” He was joined by his son Lukas for much of his set, and they sang a duet on their cover of Pearl Jam’s ballad “Just Breathe” (from Willie’s latest album, Heroes). After “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and “On The Road Again,” he invited the Bee Creek Gospel Singers to join him for some gospel songs. Other performers, including Grace Potter and Neil Young, also joined. First they played “I’ll Fly Away.” The next gospel number, which closed the show, was anything but traditional: “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” (also from Heroes), which accentuated Trudell’s earlier point. While maybe not a number you’d hear in any church, it certainly is the gospel to Nelson. And, he hopes in the future, to small farmers.
— Brian Ives, CBS Local