Something unusual was present at the press conference before the Farm Aid 2009 concert in St. Louis: a sense of optimism. Obviously, the situation in which family farmers in America find themselves is bleak, but the activists, farmers, and artists—including Farm Aid’s musical board members, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews—insisted that hopeful signs were on the horizon. First, people across the country are getting behind local-food movements, being educated to the healthful, economical, and ethical benefits of consuming food produced in and around one’s own zip code. Second, Farm Aid officials pointed to the obvious change in the attitude toward family-farm causes coming out of the new Administration in Washington: “We have an open door,” said Executive Director Carolyn Mugar.
Still, enormous challenges remain, namely addressing the ongoing dairy crisis by convincing the USDA to set milk prices that cover production costs for small farmers and to stop issuing loans to corporate farms, whose overproduction drives prices so low that family farms are unable to compete. Willie Nelson, easily the most adored person present—not an unusual position for Willie to find himself, but particularly true here—spoke to those gathered about eating good food as a kid growing up in Abbott, Texas, and the importance of kids today having access to natural, fresh food. After several moving speeches from the artists, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, dairy farmers, local owners of farmers markets, etc., the conference adjourned, and we poured out into the Verizon Amphitheater to take in the ten-hour Farm Aid, the 24th year for America’s longest-running annual charity concert.
Willie strolled out at 1pm with the Wisdom Dancers, a Native American group in full traditional dress. Willie sang a quiet solo acapella version of “The Lord’s Prayer”, and the festivities were officially underway. If in Willie’s prayer and the Wisdom Dancers’ performance, there was a little something for the weather, it worked. With a vast blue sky and a mild eighty degrees, this sold-out crowd settled in for some serious fun in the sun, and the Budweiser vendors were doing brisk business. The first official musical act, the Blackwood Quartet, performed brassy gospel numbers to a mostly empty venue this early in the day, but early birds were treated to these old school fellas in televangelist hair and suit combos and their soaring vocal harmonies amid classic country arrangements on standards like “A Wonderful Time Up There” and an especially powerful “How Great Thou Art”. It was a rousing start to the day and, given the evidence on the lawn, fun to hula-hoop to, as well.
The early part of the day’s lineup featured a series of scruffy plaid-shirted roots-rock acts, starting with Phosphorescent, headed up by singer and Georgia native Matthew Houck, whose three-song set featured woozy steel-guitar atmospherics and Houck’s plummy vocals on his best-known song, “A Picture of Our Torn Up Praise” and the new ballad “I Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down”. For their third tune, the group brought out Willie himself, no surprise since Houck’s new project is To Willie, a collection of Willie covers. Houck is clearly a major fan given the album’s song selection of deep cuts, and for this show he chose “Reasons to Quit” (a Merle Haggard song, but whatever), and Willie contributed some barely-there backing vocals and his signature ragged guitar lines. Then Phosphorescent disappeared into the wings just as we were getting acquainted, a reminder that a trip to the bathroom or beer stand likely means missing an entire set today.
Another Americana artist who made the trip (not only do the artists play for free but they pay their own travel expenses getting here) was Will Dailey, a Boston singer-songwriter, who opened with “Down the Drain”, a soul-pop tune from Dailey’s recent Torrent: Volumes 1 & 2, but Dailey’s band really built up steam with that album’s “How Can I Make You Happy” as peals of organ floated over jangling guitars and Dailey’s passionate vocals. This was shiny heartland rock with an emphasis on easy melody, amiable enough to win over Gossip Girl producers and this festival crowd alike. It helped that video screens popped on during Dailey’s last song, the rollicking “Undone”, allowing the crowd to invest in Dailey’s tousled good looks and his band’s first-rate playing, which worked into a fiery finish in the early afternoon sun.
Next up, Ernie Isley and the Jam Band. Ernie was a second-wave Isley Brother, who increased the funk quotient in that band when he joined in the late 1960s. Isley, backed by a slammed-tight rhythm section, wasted no time getting downright Prince-tastic with considerable guitar fireworks on “Rising From the Ashes”, but he scratched the most classic soul itches on “That Lady”. He’s an effective singer with a high, piercing range, but his guitar was the clear star of this set, as he pulled out the Hendrix bag of tricks, playing behind his head, then with his teeth (tongue, actually). Ernie introduced the next song as an “Isley Family Heirloom” and achieved the day’s first standing crowd with “Shout”; the crowd was happy to play along, turning the amphitheater momentarily into a wedding reception, before Isley brought it back down—a little bit softer now—doing for “Amazing Grace” (it was Sunday, after all) what Jimi did for the National Anthem.
Willie Nelson came back out to jubilant cheers, the latecomers in the crowd laying eyes on him for the first time, only to introduce his son, Lukas Nelson, for some well-received nepotism. “You’ve heard ‘Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys’”, Willie said, referring to his ‘70s classic. “Well, it’s too late—mine already did.” Lukas, Willie’s son with his fourth and current wife, is a 20-year-old guitar slinger, who shares his old man’s penchant for bandanas and long hair, but who takes his musical cues more from Stevie Ray Vaughn than from his dad. In fact, it was the second Hendrix-y set in a row, as Lukas sang and shred in front of his two sidemen, dubbed the Promise of the Real, for a psychedelic-blues set that tried to pack in as many rock clichés as possible in a 20-minute set. They even squeezed in a drum solo on which the drummer used his hands “Moby Dick” style, for heaven’s sake. Lukas is just a kid and has, er, real promise as a guitarist, but his solos, although audacious, were nonetheless sloppy enough that he probably should have been carrying Ernie Isley’s amp rather than following his set on stage. Regardless, not long after he finished, Lukas was getting absolutely mobbed on the lawn by an adoring crowd who had never heard of him until a half-hour before.
Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses, four shaggy alt-country dudes straight out of New Mexico, hit the stage, joined today by Willie harmonica-wizard Mickey Raphael, for a three-pack of tunes from their rock-solid debut Mescalito, opening with the Steve Earle-style slide-fest stomper “Hard Times”. It was a thematically appropriate song about minimum wage and coming up short, made effective by Bingham’s gargled-glass vocals and crusty Southwestern drawl. Bingham, a cool customer in his trademark white straw hat and four-day beard, took his turn on snaggletoothed slide guitar for the hammer-slinging hard blues of “Sunshine”. Their third, and regrettably last, song was the killer single “Bread and Water”, a snakebite groover, which rocked appreciably harder than the studio version, and wouldn’t it be nice if this is what mainstream country radio sounded like.
Legendary songwriter Billy Joe Shaver was a scratch today, apparently victim of a late flight, giving me time to peruse the booths and chat with the good folks at FoodandWaterWatch.com and the Farm to Schools movement, along with beekeepers, inventors of chicken-plucking gadgets, and local food vendors, which gave the fans some only-at-Farm-Aid alternatives to the usual seven-dollar slices of pizza. I went with the organic corn dog, which I downed just in time for Jamey Johnson‘s set. Johnson opened with his hit single “High Cost of Living”, a song as country as any that’s come around since the trucker craze, referencing pickup trucks and God and whores and prison. Johnson is an ornery-looking bastard, like a mix between Waylon Jennings and WWE’s The Undertaker, casting a mean-eyed stare across the audience and singing with a slow, sonorous delivery on bitter songs like “Mowin’ Down the Roses” and the tailor-made-for-the-occasion “You Can’t Cash My Checks”. But it was “In Color”, Johnson’s Top Ten smash, that brought the crowd to its feet for some passionate swaying and pointing to the sky, easily one of the biggest cellphone-raising singalongs of the day.
While the hit-country faithful were on their feet, trailer hero Gretchen Wilson took the stage as her band blistered out the intro to the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane”, proving that classic rock is alive and well and living on country radio. Wilson has helped usher in today’s ubiquitous hybrid of ‘80s party metal and country archetypes—with lightning-fast guitar warriors and canyon-rocking drums and her own arena-ready vocal shriek. There’s also a token fiddle player on stage so that, you know, you can tell it’s country. Wilson started with “Here For the Party”, and indeed every song Wilson played today was about partying, including a new song called “Work Hard, Play Harder”, a song Bon Jovi would love to have, with its big, round, fist-pumping chorus. Sure, Wilson is part of the cheesy new-country species, but it’s impossible to deny that she’s an impressive belter with a hot band and that her set today was big fun.
So how did Wilco follow Gretchen Wilson’s crowd-tickling dance party? By opening with their squawkiest art-rock song, “Bull Black Nova”, which is the sound of an assembly line making Doomsday machines. The song disintegrates in typical Wilco fashion, with a cacophonous three-way guitar snarl-off, thereby alienating at least half of the crowd. The band gradually won them back, however, first with Sky Blue Sky‘s “Impossible Germany”, which was stoned-out mellow enough to get over although no one has ever figured out what the hell Jeff Tweedy is talking about. After one more Sky Blue Sky cut, the soulful “Hate It Here” (“Don’t take this personally”, Tweedy asked), the band honored its St. Louis roots (Uncle Tupelo were from nearby Belleville, Illinois) with “Heavy Metal Drummer”, about playing in cover bands on St. Louis’ riverfront back in the ‘80s, and “Casino Queen”, Wilco’s rawk classic about a gambling boat that floats in the shadow of the St. Louis Arch. They closed with a rambunctious version of “Hoodoo Voodoo”, from Mermaid Avenue, finishing a six-song set that ended up satisfying both the hipster Wilco die-hards and the country loyalists who’d never heard of them.
California avocado grower Jason Mraz arrived in the late afternoon to the pacific reggae of “The Remedy”, immediately launching into a call-and-response with the crowd. Mraz (brown fedora, no shoes) did some high-stepping Peter Gabriel moves and showed off his copious vocal dexterity for a crowd getting enthusiastically into their cups as the soon-to-set sun blazed across the festivities. “Never Too Late” and “Anything You Want” were breezy island grooves accented by a three-piece horn section, but Mraz brought everyone together with a swampy reading of “Spirit in the Sky”. Mraz then taught the crowd some choreography and offered some dippy banter about “the practice of giving and receiving” to go with the jazzy vocal gymnastics of “Dynamo of Volition”, which looked cool all right at 21,000 strong. It’s been quite a year for Mraz, whose swagger and vocal showboating is offputting to some, but he owned the crowd with the day’s most polished, musical, and generous set.
Judging by the short bathroom lines during his set, a sizable percentage of the crowd was here to see Dave Matthews. No Dave Matthews Band this year for Farm Aid; instead Matthews, in relatively poor voice, played in his duet formation with guitar ace Tim Reynolds on a seven-song set as night fell. These two play exceptionally well together, especially on “Grace is Gone”, with Reynolds on delicate slide runs, and “Dancing Nancies”, with both men strumming hard and Reynolds taking a dexterous lead at the end, prompting Matthews to declare, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know”, in deference to Reynolds. The keeper moment, though, when Willie Nelson joined the two for “Gravedigger”, a song Willie covered on his Moment of Forever album. Willie took the second and third verses, sounding cool as hell, and worked in a beautiful guitar solo. Afterward, a stoked Matthews sang Willie’s praises, declaring that “Whenever we get behind the things he believes in, the better off we’ll all be.”
John Mellencamp wasted no time working this crowd, launching immediately into “Pink Houses” as the crowd surged in the presence of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, whose songs were democratizers that everyone knew by heart. John came with a versatile seven-piece band, including Mirian Sturm on violin and Mellencamp lifer Mike Wanchic on guitar, who defaulted to bluesier, moodier versions of his hits. And while Coug opened with the a one-two punch, following “Pink Houses” with a searing take on “Paper in Fire”, he wasn’t just throwing haymakers. He played a solo-acoustic song, “Save Some Time to Dream” from his upcoming record, along with urgent, go-for-broke versions of “Troubled Land” and the jackhammer punch of “If I Die Sudden” from last year’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom. Mellencamp worked the crowd hard in his familiar stage hustle—a lot of closed-fist strutting, gum chewing, sleeve rolling, vest tugging, hair mussing, etc. The set ended with a rousing “Authority Song”, which had the audience swirling and sorry to see set end. To be sure, Mellencamp sang (in great voice) and performed with the fire of a hungry rocker with nothing left to prove but plenty left to say.
Whatever happens at Farm Aid, you can always count on Neil Young to remind everyone why we’re supposed to be here. “Hope you’re enjoying Farm Aid,” Young said after his first song. “We’d enjoy it a lot more if you’d give us some money.” Young helped make “Factory Farms” a household term, with his corporate-busting t-shirts and chants at every Farm Aid concert since the beginning. He kept it up throughout his set, yelling catchphrases like “We want our farms back!” and “We’re too small to fail!” While you can count on his cranky stage lectures, you never know which Neil Young you’ll get musically, the acoustic troubadour or the Godfather of Grunge. Tonight, Neil came with an acoustic combo that included wife Pegi on backing vocals, Spooner Oldham on keys, and Ben Keith on slide guitar, for a graceful eight-song set of delightfully stubborn selections, avoiding all of Neil’s biggest hits. Instead Neil played such somber cuts as “Sail Away” and “Hold Back the Tears”, freighted with Neil’s classic, still-strong quaver and mournful harmonica. Willie made an appearance as Neil strapped on his iconic black Les Paul, and the two legends stood toe-to-toe, simultaneously soloing on a slapdash version of “Homegrown”. Young’s fans were also thrilled to hear two of his best-ever songs, a spirited run through of “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” and a lovely, set-closing “Comes a Time”.
Watching Willie Nelson perform has long been one of life’s most joyful experiences, and the fact that he continues to deliver 200-plus shows a year at age 76 is an enduring treat. How’s he holding up? Pretty damn well. His voice is showing some wear and tear around the edges but remains surprisingly sharp when he mines the silver at the top of his register. His phrasing is wackier than ever—he was always a backphraser, but 8,000 “Whiskey River”s down the road, he’s getting further and further ahead of the beat. His hair is now down to his tailbone, and you can see his trademark red locks fade to gray about midway up his back—it’s like examining the rings of a tree. It’s a reminder of the march of time, and everyone wants Willie Nelson to live forever, so you got the feeling that the crowd was soaking up this otherworldly figure with more urgency than in years past. And another reminder of attrition: Jody Payne, Willie’s guitarist for the last 35 years, retired last year, and he’s badly missed. Replacing him tonight was Lukas Nelson, who had played his own set earlier.
Willie rode his battered Martin, “Trigger”, harder than ever in Jody’s absence; it was always a loosy-goosy affair, but even more so now, with Willie’s sister/pianist Bobbie and legendary harp-shooter Mickey Raphael taking on larger roles. Tonight, Willie led the band through a mini-set of live staples, including the “Funny How Time Slips Away”/”Crazy”/ “Night Life” medley, “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”, and “Always on My Mind”. The big surprise was a walk-on by Billy Joe Shaver, whom we’d all given up on earlier in the day. Shaver joined Willie for makeshift versions of Shaver’s “You Asked Me To” and “Georgia on a Fast Train”. Next, Willie invited whoever was still around backstage to come out for the traditional Farm Aid-ending gospel and Hank Williams singalongs, blending “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with “Jambalaya” and “I Saw the Light”. And then, Farm Aid 2009 came to a close, and like a stranger in the night, Willie Nelson was gone, leaving the crowd with the insistent hope that the world keeps going his way.