On September 18, 1997, Memorial Stadium was full of fans. But not for football. The Huskers didn’t have a game on Sept. 19, 1987.
The stadium was packed for Farm Aid III, the biggest concert ever held in Nebraska and likely the largest single-day entertainment event in the state’s history.
Farm Aid III was a full day, starting at noon when Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson and his band Family launched into their trademark opener “Whiskey River” and ending 10 hours, 15 minutes later with Arlo Guthrie leading the day’s performers — and the crowd — through his father Woody’s “This Land is Your Land.”
In between, the concert featured the most impressive lineup to appear at any single Nebraska show before or since.
That lineup included Farm Aid leaders John Mellencamp and Neil Young; John Denver, whose band featured legendary guitarist James Burton; then newcomers Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, Steve Earle and Dave Alvin; Kris Kristofferson, who reunited with Rita Coolidge; Bonnie Bramlett with her band Bandaloo Doctors; Steppenwolf; Joe Walsh; The Fabulous Thunderbirds at the peak of their fame; a by-satellite Grateful Dead; and a rare, perhaps only Nebraska appearance by Lou Reed, who has not played the state since.
Reed, who performed with Mellencamp’s band, rocked his Velvet Underground classic “Sweet Jane” and his only hit, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Unlike most of the day’s performers, the always difficult Reed wouldn’t talk to the media, saying he didn’t know anything about agriculture, except that he eats, and was at the show only because he’d been requested to perform. Asked for a comment for print, Reed sarcastically quipped “Power to the people,” something he’s never believed.
In contrast, most of the performers, such as farm-raised John Conlee, and actor hosts, such as Dennis Hopper and “Hill Street Blues” star Charles Haid, happily talked about Farm Aid, the need to save family farms and the music, which, far more than the talk, was the point of the day.
Of Farm Aid’s three board members — Nelson, Mellencamp and Young — Nelson made appearances throughout the day, and Young played a solo acoustic set, debuting “This Note’s for You,” his wry anti-corporate anthem that became an MTV hit.
Tim Kechely, now co-owner of Fuse Recording, spent his day at Farm Aid running backstage sound systems for Dietze Music, then going onto the stage and into the stadium to watch the show.
“One thing that stands out in my mind is the camaraderie between all the different musicians,” said Kechely. “There seemed to be a real unity going on, a real friendliness. They were really into being a part of it.”
That same sense of togetherness could be felt in the stadium as well, he said.
“You could see it in the audience, feel it in the audience,” Kechely said. “It was one of those things you walked away from and felt super good about. They (performers) weren’t out there to make their latest song a hit. They were there to try to make a difference, for something bigger. So was the audience.”
That’s essentially the same view Nelson had of the show.
“(Farm Aid III was) one of the strongest concerts I’ve ever taken part in, both musically and in the response from the audience and the whole state,“ he wrote in “Willie Nelson,” his 1988 autobiography.
Most of the crowd was made up of Nebraskans. But the 69,000 in attendance did not make a sellout. Officials had held back 2,000 tickets for day-of-show sales and all of them did not sell. Nonetheless, there has never been a bigger concert in Nebraska, nor is there likely to be any that come close to 70,000 people in the future.
In part, that is because stadium concerts are not so prevalent as they were two decades ago; Memorial Stadium, with its enclosures and sky boxes, isn’t exactly a prime concert venue, and Lincoln is far from the million-plus metro areas where stadium shows now take place.
In fact, Farm Aid III almost didn’t happen because of technical problems in using the stadium for a show, most prominently because, at that time, trucks could not be driven onto the field. So 60 volunteers had to help carry staging, lights and other production equipment from the trucks onto the artificial turf.
University officials, particularly then-football coach Tom Osborne, were also concerned that thousands of people walking on the field smoking and drinking would damage the turf, which was covered by an eighth-inch black mat during the concert. That proved to be a false fear.
Immediately after the show, Osborne thought he had found a number of cigarette burns at the north end of the field. They really were marks made to locate the stage that disappeared when it rained the day after the concert. The only damage to the field was in two spots, each 6 to 9 inches in diameter.
Farm Aid III was a moderate financial success, but did not measure up to the amount raised by its predecessors.
The 67,581 tickets sold — the remaining attendance included 600 volunteers, media, security and concert personnel — accounted for $1.35 million. That was the same amount as the concert’s production costs, meeting the goal of organizers.
About $1 million was raised from donations called in during the concert’s syndicated television broadcast that covered about 85 percent of the country. Television ad revenue was the day’s disappointment, bringing in only $200,000 rather than the $600,000 organizers estimated initially. Merchandise sales of $100,000, a donation of $200,000 from Nebraska Cares and other income brought the final total that went to farmers to $1.5 million to $1.7 million.
The first Farm Aid show, held in Chicago in 1985, raised about $5 million. Farm Aid II, held at a racetrack in Manor, Texas, had a net of well over $2 million.
Farm Aid, which Nelson repeatedly said he’d like to end in a few years if farmers got back on their feet, soldiers on. The 22nd Farm Aid concert is set for Saturday at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa.
The sold-out show will draw 29,000 people, half of the number of Farm Aid III, to see a lineup that includes new Farm Aid board member Dave Matthews and Mellencamp, Young and Nelson.
Memorial Stadium will be packed on Saturday, too. This time the Huskers are playing. No guitars, drum kits and amps will be found inside, unlike a quarter-century ago.