Farm Aid 2017 Rocks Pittsburgh

John Mellencamp performs during Farm Aid in Burgettstown, Washington County Saturday night.

photo:  Steph Chambers
by:  Scott Mervis

The last Farm Aid in Pittsburgh, just a year after 9/11, had an air of nationalistic aggression with Kid Rock and Toby Keith both on board, the latter doing his boot-in-the-you-know-where anthem “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American).”

Farm Aid 2017 on Saturday at the KeyBank Pavilion was more of a lovefest with lots of camaraderie, a couple blasts of hard rock and a sprinkling of artists who define the word laidback.

Among them was Jack Johnson, making his first appearance in these parts since 2002. The surfer-turned-folk-rocker from Hawaii said backstage that he was going to try to lure some other artists up on stage, and he succeeded, getting Sheryl CrowNathaniel Rateliff and Jamey Johnson up there for Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and the Avett Brothers to play some “Mudfootball” with him.

That’s how the day went at the Pavilion — lots of spontaneity for a hard-drinking, sold-out crowd of more than 23,000 who missed some of the early afternoon highlights, like Nelson’s son Lukas getting alt-country newcomer Margo Price up on stage to do “Find Yourself” with his band Promise of the Real. That was after his brother Micah delivered one of the more “out there” sets with his LA psych-rock band Insects vs. Robots.


Willie Nelson greets the crowd during Farm Aid, Saturday, at KeyBank Pavilion,
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Price returned to swap harmonies with Crow on “Strong Enough.” Crow’s energetic, hit-filled set — “Every Day is a Winding Road,” “My Favorite Mistake,” etc. — climaxed with Lukas, Willie and Jack Johnson joining her to pay tribute to Gregg Allman on “Midnight Rider,” ending in a screaming guitar jam.

Not many people saw Valerie June, which is too bad because the charming singer from Memphis seemed as organic as the crops, doing her version of Southern soul. Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats had a more scenery-shredding approach to soul and blues, and Blackberry Smoke lit up the Pavilion with some scorching Southern rock.

Country traditionalist Jamey Johnson was in a mood for classics from fallen artists, applying a baritone deep as a well to The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” Don Williams’ “Some Tears Will Never Mend,” Little Feat’s “Willin’,” Jerry Reed’s “Eastbound and Down” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

The Avetts, playing Farm Aid and the Pavilion for the first time, made the amphitheater feel smaller than it was, creating an intimacy with the crowd on favorite Avett “hits” like “Laundry Room,” “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” and “Talk on Indolence.” Jack Johnson mellowed things down in the late afternoon with his acoustic island folk, delivering one of the day’s comical highlights with “Willie Got Me Stoned and Took All My Money.”

Matthews, who took a rare summer off from touring with the DMB, did his traditional duo set with longtime sidekick Tim Reynolds, demonstrating how loud and forceful two acoustic guitars and one voice can be. They started with an intense “Don’t Drink the Water,” sung through gritted teeth, and moved through the more delicate “Satellite” and “Mercy” and a furious “What Would You Say.” Matthews also introduced a passionate new song, possibly called “Odds Are Against Us,” that could turn up on that album he talked about releasing next year.

“I don’t know if I was ready,” he said, after playing it, “but too late now.”


Teryn Adkins, 5, shows a plant to Sarah Buranskas during a tour Friday of Kretschmann Organic Farm near Zelienople.
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John Mellencamp, looking like a preacher all in black, did one of the more topical and hard-hitting sets of the day, hitting the stage with full band doing a rollicking “Lawless Times,” before taking the crowd to a more familiar place with “Small Town.” He promised a variety of songs and delivered that with a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway,” a jubilant “Check it Out” and a solo acoustic sing-along on one of his biggest radio hits.

“I don’t even know why I play this song,” he said, introducing “Jack & Diane.” “I only play this song ’cause I know you guys want to hear it.”

It turned into loose, messy fun.

The new song “Easy Target” was the darkest of the day, with him spitting out the words, “So black lives matter/ Who we trying to kid? Here’s an easy target/ Don’t matter, never did.” “Rain on the Scarecrow” cut right to the heart of Farm Aid, as did a finale of the Americana classic “Pink Houses.”

Young, who has been woefully scarce in 2017, was not gonna go quietly into the night. He came out with “Promise of the Real” in vintage Godfather of Grunge form, roaring through “F—ing Up.” A gorgeous “Cortez the Killer” came with a smoldering intro almost as long as some of the day’s early sets, and “Cinnamon Girl” was a blast of heavy rawk the rowdy crowd seemed to crave.

He stopped to thank the fans for coming to Farm Aid and tell them, “Farmers are the American heroes today. They’re living a real life.”

Young strapped on a harmonica (to a big cheer) and shifted into acoustic mode for “Human Highway,” “Heart of Gold” and “Comes A Time,” his voice sounding as strong and pretty as it ever did. He and POTR closed back in wild Crazy Horse mode, rumbling through “Like a Hurricane” and “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

One of the downsides of Farm Aid is you want another hour of that. In any case, people will be talking about that being the best hour of music they saw all year.

Willie’s set, closing out Farm Aid — and the KeyBank season with it — had its own kind of grandeur and ragged glory, starting with the traditional “Whiskey River” and “Still is Still Moving to Me.” He rolled quickly through some country staples, including “Beer for My Horses” and “Good Hearted Woman” (”one for Waylon,” he said). Johnson (Jamey, not Jack) took the Merle Haggard part on the comical “It’s All Going to Pot.”

Willie and the Family took it to church with a choir that included Crow, June and the Avetts on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away,” and Lukas belted out the blues on a sprawling jam through “Texas Flood.” They put a bow on the 32nd Farm Aid with a spirited run through “I Saw the Light,” a song that plenty of farm folk will be hearing, at varied tempos, at church on Sunday morning.

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