by: Ryan O’Malley
“I’m a farmer…” were the words Max Yasgur said before thunderous applause erupted from a crowd a half a million strong at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in 1969. Since that time, there has been somewhat of a subliminal appreciation between music fans and the hardworking farmers in our country.
In 1985 – after a loose suggestion from Bob Dylan at Live Aid – Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp began organizing a yearly benefit concert for small town farmers throughout the nation known simply as Farm Aid. Since its inception, Farm Aid has focused on assisting farmers with the rising day-to-day costs of running one of the oldest professions in our country. With three top-level musicians as board members, the formula was easy: bring in some well-known musical friends for a day-long concert and spread the word.
While Farm Aid picks a new city for each concert, the organizers chose Hershey as the host site for this year’s event which took place on Saturday.
Keeping with tradition, prior to the event the annual press conference was held with Nelson, Young, Mellencamp, Dave Matthews (board member since 2001), Jack Johnson and farmers from Hershey. During their speeches, all four board members talked about how easy it was to pick Hershey, putting emphasis on the area’s dairy farming; but also spoke of the hardships the government has been imposing on farmers (notably, Young reading a letter he received from a local farmer known only as Joe, where he expressed dismay at the lack of available funding.)
After the conference, music started almost immediately with Young’s wife Pegi taking the stage for a brief set, which was followed by semi-new jam band Animal Liberation Orchestra (ALO.)
In between acts, video montages were shown with past Farm Aid highlights, and also touted all the locally-grown food available for purchase at the Homegrown Village which showcased the diverse naturally-grown products coming out of the Hershey area.
Following a short set by Nelson’s son Lukas and his band, The Promise of a Real, the soulful Grace Potter and the Nocturnals delivered one of the best sets of the day. Throughout the 45 minute set, the naturally-elegant Potter played guitar, organ and sang two duet songs with the elder Nelson, who received a standing ovation when he took the stage.
A new-comer to Farm Aid, Jack Johnson came out after Potter and put in a spirited set full of acoustic island-fused hits including his radio staples “Flake” and “Bubble Toes.”
For the country fans, the big names came out next with superstar Kenny Chesney, who played a 45-minute set full of hits including “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem.”
In what has become a rare setting, Dave Matthews took the stage with long-time friend and band mate Tim Reynolds who put in a solid, hour-long acoustic set beginning with a Matthews song Nelson has covered, “Grave Digger.” Throughout songs like “Funny the Way It Is,” “Dancing Nancies,” and “Don’t Drink the Water,” it was hard to not be impressed by what Reynolds can do with just an acoustic guitar.
Matthews and Reynolds ended with the Matthews solo cut “Some Devil,” before turning the stage over to Mellencamp.
Once the opening verse of the first number, “The Authority Song,” hit, it was clear Mellencamp does not have the voice we have all come to appreciate (on par with the last 20 years of Bob Dylan.) Though hoarse-voiced, Mellencamp put in a pleasing set of hits including “Check It Out,” “Pink Houses,” and “Small Town.”
Suspiciously, “Jack and Diane” was nowhere to be found.
After mostly acoustic music, it was a blessing for rock fans when Neil Young and Crazy Horse took the stage to deliver an hour of loud riffs beginning with “Love and Only Love.” Scorching solos were prevalent courtesy of Young and guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on cuts like “Homegrown,” Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” and the set closing “Like a Hurricane.”
Coming on nearly an hour late, and 15 minutes after curfew, Willie Nelson and Family dove into a short but sweet set which featured a small four-piece backing band and son Lukas on guitar and vocals.
After nearly twelve hours promoting the event and chatting with farmers, Nelson had remarkable energy on songs like “On the Road Again,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” and “Crazy” which he wrote for Patsy Cline.
Wrapping up around Midnight, Nelson ended the night with the appropriate “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I’m Gone.”
In the 27 years since it started, Farm Aid has donated millions of dollars to the farming community in hopes of helping to maintain one of the most relied upon jobs in the country. With dozens of top-notch acts taking part in the concerts and millions of farmers eternally grateful for what Farm Aid does for them, it’s easy to see that Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and Matthews are on the right track.
And the beat goes on…
Ryan O’Malley is the music journalist for The Sunday Dispatch and a correspondent for The Weekender. He may be reached at email@example.com