Farm Aid 31
Jiffy Lube Live – Bristow, Virginia – Saturday September 7, 2016
Not only is Farm Aid has a legendary event on the concert calendar in America each year it is also a chance for a star-studded line-up to get together with fans and actually make a difference to the world, specifically farming and its practices.
If you were unsure of the purpose of the event when you purchased your ticket then you would certainly know by the end of the day. Not only is the message delivered on stage with words as well as images flashed on the large screen at the rear but also by the displays, stalls and workshops around the arena.
A one-hour press conference attended by all the musicians, introduced the 31st Farm Aid concert and outlined the aim of the organisation forcefully through speeches and videos of farmers at work. The four patrons and founders of Farm Aid – Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews – were there to reinforce the message, which is essentially non-political. No Presidential politics here; this is a movement that crosses those boundaries (as you can easily see from the make-up of the audience). Even the Governor’s wife who welcomed everyone did not mention her partner’s party (Democrat).
The venue, with its very un-rock ‘n’ roll name, is a large amphitheatre – think Shoreline in California or Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne (though this is much bigger and better than that). It’s something that is done well over here with the profusion of food and beer stalls. Of course, everyone drives so the car park is enormous. (Note to self: remember to look where you park your car).
Basically, each act got 45 minutes to showcase their music which pretty much ensured you were going to get the some of the best of their work compressed.
I never thought I would hear Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ at Farm Aid but that is how the day started when Ian Mellencamp (nephew of John) took the stage. To describe his music as experimental is not quite adequate. He’s from New York and has obviously been hanging around some of the more interesting venues and, by his own admission, influenced by Radiohead. If you think you have seen Ian’s face before check some old Calvin Klein ads; he got waylaid by fashion but is back with music. Pretty exciting for someone to open this sort of concert.
Things got a little straighter with Insects vs Robots, who seem to be a favourite of Willie’s, a five piece band from Venice, California They employ unusual instruments such as the violin, charango, harp, banjo, kazoo, harmonium, and sitar. You get the picture.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real impressed everyone with their visit to Byron’s Bluesfest earlier this year so it was a much-anticipated performance here. They have really brought Young’s performance to another level (no disrespect to Crazy Horse) and their show with him at Jazz Fest earlier this year was one the best I have ever seen him do. Lukas uncannily like his father at times – that’s only natural – and he has written some very catchy songs. ‘Don’t want To Die Alone’ and ‘Carolina’ were two of the standouts in this set. While Lukas is a very-talented lead guitarist, it is difficult not to sometimes think that this is Willie in front of a rock band!
Margo Price’s debut album earlier this year, released on Jack White’s Third Man Records, was impressive so it was good to see her here and have a wider audience get to hear a selection of excellent songs from Mid-West Farmer’s Daughter, including ‘Weekender.’ Looking forward to seeing her in Nashville during Americana.
Many years ago at Jazz Fest in New Orleans I saw Delbert McClinton and was so impressed that I thought he must have been one of America’s biggest acts. I was wrong. I looked at the chart sand he was nowhere to be found.
It occurred to me this evening that in a fair world Jamey Johnson and Sturgill Simpson would be two of the biggest selling country acts on the planet. You can’t help but be impressed with the way they keep to tradition and give it their own twist. I suppose that the increase in popularity of the Americana movement is going to benefit just such artists.
The septuagenarian couple next to me had come just to see Willie Nelson and confessed that they didn’t like country music until just a few years ago when they first heard Willie. They were knocked out by Johnson and Simpson. “Why don’t we hear them on commercial country radio?” Good question.
The bearded, t-shirted Johnson was joined on stage by Alison Krauss but thus is far different than her collaboration with Robert Plant. Here she augments Johnson’s sound and is a really welcome addition.
While Johnson’s own co-write ‘In Color,’ (a story about his grandfather, fitted into the theme of Farm Aid perfectly, his musical roots were plain to hear. He performed the Carter Family’s ‘My Dixie Darling,’ Waylon Jennings’ ‘I Ain’t The One,’ Merle Haggard’s ‘I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink,’ a stunning version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ (making you wonder why it is not the national anthem). There was also a fantastic workout on Don Williams ‘Tulsa Time’ in which the drummer and percussionist went head to head in a duel that made you think of Santana rather than country!
Nathaniel Rateliffe & The Night Sweats managed to get the audience moving with a their pumping neo-soul and selection of songs from their latest album, including a terrific reading of ‘Shake’ and a rousing ‘S.O.B.’ which segued into a fine version of ‘The Shape I’m In.’ Rateliffe expressed his gratitude for being their and being able to help and, as he said, “I never thought I would be sharing the stage with these people.”
Sturgill Simpson launched into what seemed to be a frenetic set with the songs delivered at breakneck speed. He balanced three songs from the latest album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth (‘Brace for Impact (Live a Little),’ ‘Keep It Between The Lines,’ ‘Call Top Arms’) with three from his acclaimed Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (‘Life of Sin,’ ‘Long White Line,’ ‘It Ain’t All Flowers’) and, in a nice touch, added Willie Nelson’s ‘I’d Have to Be Crazy.’
The Alabama Shakes’ singer Brittany Howard is an arresting presence, physically and sonically – and she plays a mean guitar line. The charisma seems to have only increased since I first saw the group four years ago. Talk about having the audience in the palm of your hand: they got a standing ovation before they started. Howard’s incredibly powerful voice soared while guitarist Ben Howard Highlights include the opener, ‘Future People,’ ‘Miss You,’ Sound and Color,’ ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’ and ‘You Ain’t Alone.’
Dave Matthews teamed up with guitarist Tim Reynolds for an acoustic set which produced some interesting moments and is something quite different than the usual set Matthews does with his band, though largely comprised of Matthews’ own material.
I have never seen John Mellencamp before and I am not sure why. He has managed to morph his career from rock star into something much more substantial, no doubt helped by his work with T Bone Burnett a few years back.
This meant he could throw in a Robert Johnson cover, ‘Stones In My Passway’ and do the blues justice. As soon as the audience heard him do ‘Small Town’ they were on their feet and that continued for most of the nine-song set which included ‘Rain On The Scarecrow’ and some lesser-known songs such as ‘Lawless Times,’ from 2014’s Plain Spoken. Mellencamp’s band was fantastic and the appearance of the fiddle player and accordionist for an instrumental interlude before ‘Scarecrow’ was an adventure that paid off.
As mentioned, Neil Young has gone to another level with Promise of the Real and he seems to be relishing the experience. Young and band started in acoustic mode much to the delight of the crowd. ‘Heart Of Gold,’ ‘Out On The Weekend,’ ‘Human Highway’ and ‘Harvest Moon’ were enough to please old-tlme fans. Then he introduced Willie Nelson, who strode on stage to sing his own song ‘Are There Any More Real Cowboys? Finally, Young picked up Old Black, his 1953 Les Paul, for an energetic blast of ‘Powderfinger’ and ‘Rockin’ In The Free World.’ For a seven-song set it was inspiring.
The night concluded with Willie Nelson & Family who raced through half a dozen songs before you hardly noticed. ‘Whiskey River/Still Is Still Moving Me’ was the opener but the following songs, ‘Beer For My Horses’ turned out to be the crowd favourite with the audience finishing the chorus for Nelson. ‘Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’ and ‘Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die’ were almost as popular. And speaking of popularity, judging by the audience reaction during the day Nelson, at 83, is perhaps more popular than ever and he might even be a walking advertisement for certain pursuits (not just golf).
The entire cast gathered for the finale of ‘I’ll Fly Away,’ ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘I Saw The Light.’ The good vibes were palpable amongst the performers and the audience. It’s not that often that you get a chance to enjoy some great music and do some good at the same time.