Earlier this year, Farm Aid President Willie Nelson celebrated his 80th birthday, and the man shows no signs of slowing down. Beloved by millions not only for his music, but also for his activism and outlaw persona, he gets standing ovations the minute he hits the stage, before even playing a note. But if it’s actually possible to upstage Willie at Farm Aid, one man accomplished it at this year’s festival, which took place Saturday at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga, New York. And he’s fourteen years Willie’s senior.
When John Mellencamp played his hit ”Pink Houses,” he mentioned that that song had been inspired by artists who came before him who tried to make a difference with music. “When I was growing up, my parents used to play his records, and I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I could do this someday. Ladies and gentlemen, Pete Seeger!” The folk music icon then took the stage, armed with his banjo. “Friends, at age 94, I don’t have much voice left. But here’s a song I think you know, and if you sing it, why, we’ll make a good sound!”
PHOTO GALLERY: Farm Aid 2013
After that, he called the board members of Farm Aid – Nelson, Neil Young, Mellencamp and Dave Matthews – back to the stage to sing “This Land Is Your Land” with him. Midway through the song, Seeger told the audience, “I’ve got a verse you’ve never heard before!” In the classic folk tradition of adding verses to song to make them more current and relevant, he sang, “New York is my home, New York is your home, from the upstate mountains down to the ocean foam/With all kinds of people… New York was meant to be frak free,” earning the largest roars of the night, from an audience heavy with farmers and other upstate New Yorkers who make their living from agriculture.
THE PRESS CONFERENCE: “GO FRAK YOURSELF!”
Earlier in the day, Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and Matthews took a different stage together, at the pre-concert press conference. Nelson greeted an audience of press, artists and farmers from across the country, saying, “We’re glad we’re here, (but) we’re sorry we still have to be here. We’re here asking you, ‘What do you need?’ We try to tell everyone else what the farmer needs, because you’re very important to our country.”
Nelson later added: “Our job is to keep America growing and keep the farmers on the land. The future farmers of America I think will save us.”
Meanwhile, Young expressed that he is depressed at the farming situation in America and has no faith in the government giving farmers what they need. He would later go on to express this believe numerous times throughout his set. “Farmers are on the frontlines. They are on the cutting edge of what’s going on in the world today,” he said. Mellencamp said that he feels that “we are at a tipping point where Americans see that something has to be done” about the agricultural industry being heavily influenced by corporate interests. On the other hand, he lamented that “the word ‘organic’ has been hijacked” and is just a marketing term.
Focusing on another environmental issue that concerns farmers (and which Seeger sang about later in the day), Matthews said, “If you absolutely have to frak something, why not frak yourself?” The audience, filled with anti-fraking protesters roared with laughter and approval. Nearly three decades after starting Farm Aid, Nelson said “To those who disagree with us: We’re not happy until you’re not happy!”
HANGING WITH THE NELSONS
Shortly after the press conference, Nelson welcomed Radio.com to his tour bus, and agreed with Mellencamp’s earlier point: people are becoming more aware of the origins of the food that they purchase.
“When you’re sitting there at the breakfast table, eating bacon and eggs and it comes from 1500 miles away, and the [local] farmer could have done it for you, that’s more obvious these days.” When asked why food would be imported from overseas when the same food is available in the United States, he says of corporate farms, “Their excuse is they make more money if they can do it over there than if they do it over here. They expect the farmers over here to do it for nothing because they get it over there for nothing. Our aim is to get more and more people thinking about organic farming and good health food and taking care of their families. I think the word is getting out.”
It’s clearly an issue that Nelson’s family takes seriously: while we were talking to Nelson, he son Micah’s band, Insects Vs. Robots, was heard in the background. Shortly after that, another son, Lukas, took the stage with his band, Promise Of The Real. Introduced as “the future of Farm Aid,” Lukas is certainly comfortable on the stage; sitting in on his father’s set, and also guesting with Toad The Wet Sprocket and Jack Johnson. But he’s a great bandleader in his own right and his high-energy set impressed with the rollicking “Four Letter Word,” poignant wedding song “I’m Giving You Away But I’m Never Going To Let You Go,” and an unforgettable moment where Lukas himself played guitar with his teeth. An ode to Jimi Hendrix, where he plucks the guitar strings with his teeth, the band has a bright future both on and off the stage. Radio.com sat down with Nelson brothers Lukas and Micah and they explained why they’ve joined the cause and why it’s important to make farming appealing to the youth.
“We’ve both been coming to Farm Aid since we were old enough to eat food,” Micah explained. “A message that could be taken from today is Farm Aid isn’t going to save humans on its own. Every day has to be Farm Aid. Every time we go and buy food, every time we spend our money we have to be conscious of where it’s going and make a choice.”
AMOS LEE: REMEMBER THE MESSAGE
Radio.com also talked with singer Amos Lee before his set. Willie lent his vocals on Lee’s 2011 album Mission Bell and it was this introduction that Lee first learned of Farm Aid. His second year playing the festival, Lee stressed, “The music is great, but the agenda of supporting family farmers and trying to take some of the control back to our food supply is the point. I’m from a city so I don’t have a ton of connections with farms, but I certainly understand and appreciate people who cultivate so they can distribute. I do the same thing, but I farm songs.” His set leaned on Mission Bell, and closed with a cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
TOAD THE WET SPROCKET JAM WITH THE NELSONS
Toad The Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips (vocals, guitar), Dean Dinning (bass) and Todd Nichols (guitar) sat down with Radio.com before their performance and discussed the impact on the environment of food being imported from overseas: Phillips says, “When you talk about the carbon footprint of food, food having a huge negative carbon impact is the absolute opposite of what agriculture should provide,” pointing out that shipping food from thousands of miles away has an impact on the environment, when the same food can be grown locally. ”The net loss compared to eating a conventional locally grown tomato, one doesn’t pay for the other. There needs to be a discussion as far as what is the actual cost of the environment, and actually asking, ‘What is the cost for anything you’re buying?’” Dinning adds, “I have a 10-year-old daughter and I think educating the next generation is probably the most important thing we can do.” It was Toad’s first Farm Aid, but they fit in perfectly, covering Nelson’s “Shotgun Willie” joined by Lukas. And on their hit, “Walk On The Ocean,” they were joined by Lukas, Willie’s daughter Amy Nelson, and his longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael.
KACEY MUSGRAVES: COUNTRY AND MARLEY
A first time performer at Farm Aid, Kacey Musgraves admitted that she “freaked out” when she learned she’d be playing at the event. “First of all, I’m such a huge Willie Nelson fan. Not only Willie, but Neil Young [who] my dad always played growing up around the house. It’s a lot of great, credible music and it’s a good cause,” she told Radio.com. “There’s not too many causes I get super fired up about but good, whole food and supporting family farms is one that I can really get behind.” A point she stressed throughout her performance, Musgraves’ set featured several tracks off her most recent album, Same Trailer, Different Park including first single “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Silver Lining,” and the banjo infused “Step Off” which led into Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Closing her set with her next single, “Follow Your Arrow,” Musgraves said the track was “inspired by people of all kinds and doing what makes you happy.” As she conducted the crowd to sing along with her she urged, “I want you to sing loud so Willie can hear it.”
JAMEY JOHNSON: NOT HERE FOR THE PARTY
Willie Nelson once sang that “sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year,” but Johnson has made sad songs his own trademark, a point he brought home with his powerful set that included “High Cost Of Living,” “Can’t Cash My Checks,” “In Color” and “Just Give It Away.” If those weepers didn’t do the trick, he sang the saddest version of “You Are My Sunshine,” so powerful that it may even have caused Dave Matthews and Jack Johnson’s hard-partying fans to drop some tears in their collective beer.
JACK JOHNSON: FUTURE FARM AID BOARD MEMBER?
Jack Johnson is no stranger to the Farm Aid cause. Performing for the second year in a row, at the morning’s press conference Johnson said that he and his wife started their own environmental organization, the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, after being asked to appear at Young’s Bridge School Benefit. “[My wife and I] walked away from that wanting to do something big. We got home and started something called the Kokua Hawaii Foundation [where] we integrate nutrition and healthy eating in schools.”
Johnson’s 45-minute set at Farm Aid spanned his catalog of hits including “Better Together,” “Bubble Toes,” “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing,” “Banana Pancakes,” a surprising rap feature during “Staple It Together” and a fun jam with Lukas Nelson on “Flake.” He received one of the strongest responses of the night – particularly from younger audience members. Don’t be surprised to see him sitting on the Farm Aid board one of these days.
DAVE MATTHEWS AND TIM REYNOLDS: GRACE – NOT GONE
Dave Matthews performed with his acoustic duo partner Tim Reynolds, as opposed to with the Dave Matthews Band. A member of Farm Aid’s board since 2001, he noted that his band first played Farm Aid in 1994, and he was enticed by the idea of sharing the stage with Nelson, Young and Mellencamp. Matthews and Reynolds make more noise on two acoustic guitars than many bands, and they’re more exciting than most as well. Reynolds is the rare fretboard wizard who is exciting to watch even for those who have never strapped on a guitar. Kicking off with a pair of songs off of Matthews’ 2003 solo album Some Devil - “Save Me” and “So Damn Lucky” the set also featured a few DMB songs, including “If Only,” “Grace Is Gone,” saving two ’90s favorites – “Two Step” and “#41″ – for last. Such a huge portion of the audience seems to be attending to see Matthews (and Johnson, with whom he appears to share many fans); surely the other three board members feel comfortable that with Matthews on board, Farm Aid will be around for decades, since it will surely be needed.
JOHN MELLENCAMP: A FEW CHORDS AND THE TRUTH
Matthews hails from the jam-band tradition of playing any song from the catalog, and not relying on hits. Neil Young has never felt any need to cater to the audience whatsoever (more on that shortly). So, it’s good that John Mellencamp always plays between them, and can always be relied on to knock out a healthy dose of classics. After “Check It Out” his band left the stage, and he did a solo acoustic “Jack And Diane” — accompanied by the crowd of thousands. “I can’t believe the song has lasted this long!” he said. Then came “Small Town” (“It’s the same chords as the last one!” he joked), Farm Aid’s unofficial anthem, “Rain On The Scarecrow,” “Paper In Fire,” “Crumbling Down” and “Pink Houses.” Minutes after his set, he introduced Neil Young, saying, “I hope someday that I’m bringing Neil onstage and we’re the same age as Pete and we’re laughing and we’re singing and we’re still entertaining people and still trying to say something!” That seems entirely possible: neither artist shows signs of slowing down. Or mellowing out.
NEIL YOUNG: “I WORK FOR ME!”
Ah, Neil Young. Conventional wisdom would say that, if you’re putting on a benefit show and you want people to pay attention to the message, you entertain them while you perform. Of course, no one would ever accuse Young of subscribing to conventional wisdom. Doing a solo acoustic set, he seemed as passionate about speaking to the audience as he did about performing for them. Talking about the agricultural biotech company Monsanto (the very name of which can be relied on to inspire boos, hissing and worse from family farmers), he decried corporations who valued quarterly profits over sustainable farming. And while the audience was with him during his first sermon (which came shortly after his opening song, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind”) soon the crowd got rowdy. “Did I hear, ‘Come on, let’s go!’?” he asked the audience, incredulously, during another of his rants. “I work for me, buddy!” Perhaps referencing the vocal and loud drunks in the audience, he mused, “Sometimes, these things aren’t fun to talk about.” Speaking of “not fun,” he later related a conversation that he had with Pete Seeger backstage about a Seeger’s friend, the folk singer Phil Ochs, who committed suicide in 1976. In his story, he referenced Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994 (although he didn’t mention the Nirvana singer by name), all part of making a point that life is short. He then covered Ochs’ “Changes,” saying, “You probably haven’t ever heard this song, and it’s long as hell.” To be fair, he also covered a more well known folk song, Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe,” along with two of his biggest hits, “Heart Of Gold” and “Old Man.”
WILLIE NELSON’S NEW GOSPEL
In contrast to Neil Young, Willie doesn’t do too much talking from the stage, instead cramming his set with as many hits as he can into about an hour. So he and his incredible band (which includes son Lukas on guitar, sister Bobbie on piano and Mickey Raphael on harmonica) zip through loads of country classics in record time, including “Whiskey River,” “Still Is Still Moving,” “Good Hearted Woman,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life.” One of the nice things about Nelson – and one that you don’t hear about enough – is that he’s added a number of new songs to his legacy recently, that hold up to his finest moments. Exhibit A: his cover of Pearl Jam’s “Breathe” (sung as a duet with Lukas) was stunning. He was also joined by Hawaiian singer Lily Meola for “Will You Remember Me,” from his upcoming album To All The Girls… She joined him, along with Musgraves, Young, Jamey Johnson and Matthews shortly after for another recent song – which he referred to as “a new gospel song,” “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die.” It would be an environmentally responsible way to handle what will be a sad situation, and one that hopefully we won’t have to deal with for a long time.
After all, compared to Pete Seeger, he’s just a youngster.
– Brian Ives and Annie Reuter, Radio.com