Farm Aid 2003 with Willie Nelson, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Emmylou

Farm Aid 2003 with Willie Nelson, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Billy Bob Thornton, and others

John Mellencamp
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Cabin Fever I was eating Neil Young when the highest points of my sojourn to this year’s Farm Aid benefit concert occurred: veteran Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot came this close to me, as he boarded a tour bus parked behind the press tent, and West Texas’ Los Lonely Boys, the sole band to get a standing O here and at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July picnic (according to their manager), were ripping it up onstage. While far from what I would really love to do to my lifelong heartthrob Neil Young, I was literally consuming him, as a cake — brought by the event’s Native American spiritual leader, they bore likenesses of himself, Mr. Nelson and my favorite Canadian to reflect his adoption of the white men — that occupied the coffee table blocking one of the two lone televisions provided for the despised media to view the concert in progress. Other than hanging for a bit with my colleague Holly George-Warren, present to work on a sure-to-be weighty coffee table tome commemorating Farm Aid’s 20th anniversary, that cake was all the sweet to be had during that misbegotten journey to the heart of whiteness. Y’all think that sounds harsh? Wasn’t last Sunday a (physically) glorious day to donate to/celebrate a good cause? Well, you didn’t have to endure endless hours beneath a hot tent positioned at the forsaken back corner of the Germain Amphitheater’s lot next to the tedious local stage just because the Farm Aid organization’s principals cannot reconcile their hate-hate relationship with the press. And if you think I’m whining, you should have heard the complaints of the Rolling Stone photographer and his cries over never having seen such abuse. At least I possessed the grace to suffer in silence, even when some barely post-pubescent blonde shed cow forced me to move from the position I’d been allowed by the venue’s media relations man during Young’s set. If you think I’m exaggerating, I can summon up a horde of photographers present to cover the thing to attest to the fact that board member John Mellencamp in particular never allows anyone to shoot him except from back by the soundboard, hence his palpable bad attitude when he took the stage. Furthermore, these same photographers, herded in three mammoth groups back and forth to the pit, were discussing late in the evening what they’d been told by the PR minions escorting them: a desire from the poobahs to eliminate photographers from the event altogether in the future was afoot. The lensmen (predominantly male, of course) had already had the fear of God put in them lest they should in any way infringe on the sightlines of the fat cats in the front row who had paid $3500 per ticket. But yes, yes, I know — no sympathy for the rock hacks. It matters not at all that the PR flacks admitted that no press got interviews all day due to some failure on the part of the organization’s liaison. The Media is Evil and deserves naught. Yet, like it or not, the media was an explosion of the 20th century that cannot be undone, and, for all that I myself might prefer to hear Mr. Nelson speak to a crowd of farmers and supporters in a cornfield Woody Guthrie-style, his words there would be the equivalent of pissing in the wind. Time is long gone when folks would trade news primarily over their back fence or at the after-church picnic. Nor have drums ever quite caught on as an effective means of long distance communication in this country, thus the need for the ways the likes of CBS, CMT and others in da house to amplify Mssrs. Nelson and Young’s worthy message. Farm Aid’s presence on the Internet makes plain their need to deal with the Devil. And this time, you armchair rock pundits cannot levy the accusation of us having a free ride: in addition to paying $33+ for press credentials to this event, you’ve got transportation, accommodation and incidental expenses as well (all of which for me is unrecoupable). Just because the communications director says it’s been done this way for 17 years don’t make it right; if I were not forced to watch a live concert unfolding steps away from me on a tiny monitor for a cost of more than $200, I might be inclined to donate annually to the charity out of the kindness of my heart and the righteousness of the cause. Now, I never will. Of course, my stupidity was reaffirmed upon arrival in Ohio when greeted by The Other Paper‘s screaming headline: “Farm Aid to rock critics: Sorry, no free passes.” A box lunch is an insufficient Band-Aid for a hemorrhage. At least if a group of blackfolks had been running this hootenanny, despite our stereotypical albatrosses of CPT and laziness, we would have been well-fed and the whole approach to the thang would have ultimately yielded a looser, groovier vibe — something akin to what Young achieves with Crazy Horse (especially with the late great Danny Whitten) but on the blackhandside. Indeed, as an “African-Native American” with a drop o’ Scots (look into my white brethren’s appalling history under indenture this side of the Pond), I had come to Columbus for two reasons: 1) to ascertain just what Farm Aid has/is/will be doing for the (considerably more disadvantaged) black farmer in America (inevitably, the South Carolinian black delegate to the WTO in Cancun was not chosen to speak at the sole press conference), and, 2) to see Crazy Horse (no relation) and my fellow irreverent Taurean Willie Nelson, neither of whom I’d ever managed to catch for all the symmetry. I came, after fifteen years of wishing to attend, because despite the resounding disinterest of my local colleagues, rockbiz associates and fellow-traveling country-rock fans, it seemed the goddamn right thing to do. Yes, I am a music fanatic and underemployed as a rock critic, but my abiding interest in Farm Aid has always resulted from being descended from a line of farmers, preachers, church women (à la Mary McLeod Bethune), sharecroppers and migrant workers; only my father’s move North derailed me from being as connected to the earth as my black and native ancestors were — be that exploited labor under antebellum slavery or minding their own kitchen gardens. We are not only soul but soil folk and even my very learned and cosmopolitan mother lived up to her end of the bargain by launching fishery and farming projects throughout Africa during her long career. This piece is not the solipsistic petulance of some privileged, urban lightweight crying that they did not get to smoke weed with Willie (although after Toby Keith’s tune, who’d want to?). The idealism and radicalism of the sixties did its number on me in the cradle and the unceasing excoriation from my parents’ generation that we get involved has set me to reevaluating my beliefs and investigating which causes and institutions are truly worth supporting. Sadly, until they revolutionize their way of operating, Farm Aid will not be one of them. Guess I will just have to hope that the family farmers themselves continue to receive the bulk of the benefits and resources, instead of the scenarios plaguing the Horn of Africa after Live Aid in 1985 (the same year of Farm Aid’s founding) wherein militias left food to rot instead of dispensing it to the area’s famine victims. You never know: these are times of terror again. Ever since before the Great Blackout of ’03, I have felt the fear and loathing in Gotham. Nevertheless, this trip to the heartland rather makes me think I shall never leave New York again. What I’d chosen, during a recent brief escape to Los Angeles, as remedies for the Blackout Blues were going to see Arthur Lee on the Strip (Young’s true rival for culture hero of rock ‘n roll, if not superior; legend has it that Young was initially meant to produce Love’s masterpiece Forever Changes) and acquiring two of the much-hyped and fetishized Young reissues at Amoeba: On The Beach and American Stars N’ Bars. While Gene Clark’s “One In A Hundred”, Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love” (I’m always behind the times), and Young’s track “On The Beach” were my road songs en route to Columbus, I should probably have been listening closer to “For The Turnstiles”. I obviously love Neil Young, but he does not shit gold; the criticisms of this event stand. Fortunately, after the highs of Los Lonely Boys and Brooks & Dunn, he provided the other great performance of the ten hour stretch. Since I’d missed the much reviled Greendale stop at the Garden, here was my chance to see Crazy Horse do their thang. And do it they did, roaring behind Neil in the fire-engine red “Stop Factory Farms” tee he’d donned in honor of his recently deceased bus driver who’d accompanied him to Farm Aid in years past. Almost everything was worthwhile to witness this mighty mighty version of “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”. And the proceedings just tripped on into unholy roller electric sky church as they were joined by Mr. Nelson on “Down By The River” and dropped “Country Home”, “Homegrown”, “Be The Rain”, and a blazing force field fit to slay Baby Doc Bush and his “voodoo economic” shock troops in their tracks with “Rockin’ in the Free World”. Alas, most of the preceding hours’ twenty-minute sets were received with a mere veneer of polite interest: garage-rock band Titty Bingo (a Willie and Bobbie Nelson side project), mainstream country’s chart-topping flava du jour Trick Pony, bland frat band with a flyboy in the buttermilk (a.k.a. Hootie & the Blowfish), good ol’ boy drummer-turned-extremely talented thespian Billy Bob Thornton (whose previous release, Private Radio, was better than reviewers claimed), and the estimable honky-tonk goddess Emmylou Harris (envy everyone attending her Gram Parsons celebration in Nashville this week). Guess that much was due them or a necessary pose since those people down front had paid $3500 after all. The one I forgive them, though, is Quebecois artiste Daniel Lanois. Having suffered already through his interminable set during Canada Day at Central Park earlier this summer (obviously ignoring the clamors for Rufus Wainwright), I can honestly say that while I respect his work and reputation as a producer of maverick musicians, he should not be allowed on these gigs except for closed door jams with his peers. Let them alone appreciate him, since even his appearance in Laurel Canyon undermined the rock vibe the film purported to promote. His set here was alleviated only by the glaring inclusion of Ms. Harris’ still angelic if rawer tones. Mr. Nelson should have come to the rescue in the form of a duet with Harris on “Return of the Grievous Angel”; if the execrable Ryan Adams is allowed to take it on, surely Mr. Nelson would send that beauty on high where Gram could hear. One of the truest statements all day was given not by impassioned farmers or magnanimous Farm Aid board members at the press conference, but by Emmylou Harris when she thanked Sheryl Crow for covering her song “Red Dirt Girl”, quipping that it had garnered the writer the most attention she’d had in years. Now, I am a diehard Gram and Emmylou fan, less so of her solo work beyond the Nash Rambler days, but that Voice is undeniable, as is Harris’ grace under pressure. The sad spectacle of the worn-looking (in a Pittsburgh Steelers shirt that drew boos) and possibly distracted Sheryl Crow (whose parents are cotton farmers in Missouri) racing through her hits indicated that there will be no more great women in rock ‘n roll after the demise of Stevie Nicks, for all the hopes of her acolyte/collaborator Crow, the histrionic nonsense of Liz Phair, Cat Power and Karen O slavered over by my male colleagues, and lack of substance in Avril, Michelle Branch and the MIA Vanessa Carlton et al. And the reigning queens will continue to be denied their due by radio and the majors. Crow’s best song, “If It Makes You Happy”, was very welcome, but she still has not figured out how to sing it. The divine “Picture” failed without Kid Rock chiming in. And the cover of Johnny Cash’s one-time son-in-law’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” was unfortunately lackluster, undermining the anti-war statement Crow wished to make. 20-foot-tall, inflatable cheesecake cowgirls perched on saddles, headpiece mics, cowbell, funny facial hair and all, Brooks & Dunn delivered the best show all day with their retronuevo Cosmic Americana pitched to the arenas. Kix Brooks acquitted himself well during the press conference too, referring to his family’s long rural history in central Louisiana (farming 1,000 acres or so for more than 200 years). The duo’s recent material, chiefly on latest album Red Dirt Road, steers them more in a rock direction, guiding them to the crossroads of boogie, country soul and noise along with Montgomery Gentry and past Farm Aid stars Travis Tritt and Kid Rock, who are the best practitioners of this hybrid’s specific shade. “You Can’t Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl” was a worthy statement of purpose. Their efforts — as I vaguely saw when I first braved the swelter of the lawn, which resembled Andersonville prison, the only area to which the writers were allowed to be escorted (a “privilege” earlier said to be reneged upon) — were certainly most appreciated by the roaring, blitzed, fist-pumping crowd. Anthems have their place. Brooks & Dunn finished with “Only In America”, as red, white and blue confetti fired from cannons throughout the lower levels to cheers, showering the space. Los Lonely Boys, a blues rock trio comprised of the Garza brothers from San Angelo, Texas (born in Snyder), were the day’s great revelation. In my eyes, these very talented sons of conjunto musician Ringo Garza Sr. could do no wrong, whether it be the slight emanation of cocksure arrogance from comely lead singer/guitarist Henry Garza as he offered a corrupted, slacker form of Chuck Berry’s duck walk, he and the bassist JoJo referencing one-time Wild Man of Pop by playing their axes behind their back, or drummer Ringo (yep) resembling some low-riding cholo straight out of a mid-’70s War latin-country-funk epic. Described as “Stevie Ray Vaughan meets Santana with a bit of the Everly Brothers and three-part brother harmonies thrown in,” I am here to testify that Los Lonely Boys made a believer out of me. They are indeed the future (the CBS crew seemed to think so in their haste to gather the goods) — if the blues has any future in a year when the genre has to be energized by an Act of Congress and John Mellencamp is the artist with the number one blues album in the country. Now, I am a fan of Mellencamp’s back to the “Cougar” days; I have always admired what he seemed to represent: the simple ways of the Great Middle, the common man, small-town badass attitude. Even if it’s no more than a mask, it worked on me. I adore “Jack and Diane”, “Hurts So Good”, “I Saw You First”, the magnificent “Pink Houses” (done here) and his Morrison duet with Me’Shell NdegeOcello. I even felt bad when, during his run through Trouble No More‘s reworked country, soul and blues songs such as “John The Revelator” (best covered by Warren Haynes thus far), “Death Letter”, and “Stones in My Passway”, Mellencamp was met with resounding boos from a foolish crowd angered over his asking them to consider Bush’s intent to waste billions more in Iraq. Furthermore, I can appreciate the merits of the sepia video for “Paper In Fire” set down among the po’ blackfolks’ shacks where they dance and party as if everyday was nothin’ but one big fish fry. But this boy with the best-selling blues album in America? If that’s so, we Africans had best welcome the scenario defrocked Harvard law professor Derrick Bell envisioned in his tale “The Space Traders’ Solution”. I used to think the war stories and minute cat tales traded over the last thirty-odd years about the great mass concert events of the sixties and early seventies were exaggerated in the annals of Rock. Yet for all the mud, bad acid, latent anarchy, lack of infrastructure and, most important to our fate, the financial bath Woodstock’s founders endured, I would rather have those days of relative freedom in the concert-going experience back. Although the mass movement of bodies to such generational summits as Monterey Pop and Watkins Glen triggered the greed of the promoters and the concert industry such that we have been blighted by Clear Channel’s monopoly and abominations like Germain Amphitheater dotting this once great land of unmolested woods and manageable, subsistence-level crops, I wish I could enjoy that brief moment in the sixties before that iron curtain was erected between the audience and the rock stars (well, with the notable exception of Young and Arthur Lee), before so many ballrooms were built that you could still see your artist heroes in some lowdown club as all rock ‘n roll is meant to be witnessed (and for ticket prices as reasonable as those printed on the 1968 Fillmore East Janis Joplin/Albert King/Tim Buckley poster behind me: $3, $4, $5). While there were no murders of pimped-out black men by drunken white Hell’s Angels, or attacks on musicians by feral concertgoers, nor big ugly dogs prowling some San Francisco-area wasteland, rock star hubris certainly pervaded the air. A fair chunk of the audience was stoned and trashed on all matter of intoxicants — the Music, man, their justification, security was policing the women’s bathroom nearest the pavilion because the same women who presumably donated a can of food for the hungry at the gate also don’t possess enough common decency to queue up to take a shit like everybody else, people were having sex undeterred in the open in the men’s bathroom next door, some college students interviewed by the Dispatch were keen to catch Young since they think it cannot be long before the geezer can’t bring It anymore, and a large majority present were the twirly kids only there to see their god Dave Matthews (even Young remarked upon his popularity) and, apparently, walk around with their apron dresses gathered above their waists to reveal a lack of underpants. And, typically, an incessant train of drunken boomer fanboys lurched up to me to grill me on Neil Young trivia and confess their entire life story as if I were their dear ole Mammy now ensconced in the St. Clair Hotel elderly residence on the ghetto east side of Columbus (which I visited and discovered was almost as rife with greed and whore-mongering as the rockbiz). The glowing day-after reviews dutifully spreading the idyll of a great party where musicians, hippies, farmers and regular working folk met on common ground are woefully inaccurate. The longing with which some already beer-bellied young OSU frat boys looked over the fence as Hootie and ‘nem were being interviewed on camera only to get not so much as a high-five afterwards proves that. The darkness in the light began with Young’s quip at the 11 a.m. press conference attended by us’n, credentialed family farmers and his manager Elliot Roberts: “It’s a little early this morning for some reason.” Some of the artists like Harris and Thornton were not present. Beyond Mr. Nelson, the ones who’d managed to stumble out of bed at such an ungodly, non-rock star hour — board members Dave Matthews (where was his band? Don’t they support the fight against corporate farmers?) and Mellencamp, Crow — did not look happy to be there and, at least in the case of the latter two, it carried over to their prickly sets. And the boys from Trick Pony were too busy preening. Perhaps it’s unsurprising my cousin the spiritual leader, the revved-up Garzas and, especially, Cleveland Congressman Dennis Kucinich (president?) got the most attention and applause. As the lone Negro press representative, I felt even more alienated than at Lynyrd Skynyrd in New Jersey last month…and that’s saying a good deal. It would behoove Mark Smith and Vancomm, among other things, to do a bit more outreach to Johnson Publications and others; on the one hand, as a lifelong reader of JP titles, I realize just how backwards they have been but, on the other, the subscribers to Ebony are in many sectors just the kind of people who would be interested in and quietly supportive of Farm Aid’s activities. A tad more than Rolling Stone readers, anyhow. Due to my acquaintance with the Drive-By Truckers, I came very close to attending last year’s concert. Perhaps, the experience of seeing them move on up, as well as witnessing the very great (and underrated) Kid Rock do his thang, would have alleviated the tensions of the trip back to bountiful. If you think this is specious spew, be glad I waited for a spell before writing. I don’t have the Gonzo in me or the white male skin to justify what I have come to say but if you want to attack me for focusing on the distinctly unpleasant side of this “good” event, you’ll encounter one of two responses: a) an echo of Thornton’s character finally cutting loose with that titular sling blade, or b) an anguished retreat for I am far too saddened by Johnny Cash’s dying to waste any more time with these music business and poverty pimp vultures. As for me, at Farm Aid on Sunday, September 7, 2003, it was a good day to die. If this were paper instead of a screen, it would be splotched with bitter teardrops over the death of Johnny Cash, one of the last of the true outlaws (and the continuation of my month-plus remembrance of one of the South’s finest sons, Eddie Hinton). As the latest installment of Farm Aid denies the halcyon myths of Monterey Pop etc., the loss of The Man In Black leaves this country fan and red, black and green-raised hothead disconsolate about the facts that no new rebels seem able to emerge in the society and industry’s current climate, that the Nashvillains’ ill-gotten might enables their silencing of any voices of dissent running counter to their slick program, that the very world itself will be immeasurably worse without antiheroic men like Johnny Cash offering solace to we who are discontent. To paraphrase Mr. Young’s best performance of his set at Polaris: The Man In Black has done gone into the black.