Willie Nelson headlines Mahi’ai Music Festival in Maui (August 24, 2019)

by: Jon Woodhouse

The seeds for a future Maui version of Farm Aid were planted on Saturday at the Mahi’ai Music and Food Festival held at Maui Country Club in Spreckelsville.

Opening with his classic “Whisky River,” country icon Willie Nelson headlined the sold-out fundraising event which featured an incendiary set by Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, joined by Micah Nelson (who also performed as the Particle Kid), uplifting reggae with Marty Dread, Pat Simmons, Jr.’s heartfelt songs and Tavana’s dazzling slide guitar playing.

Proceeds from the festival will benefit the Mahi’ai Foundation and the Hawaii Farmers Union Foundation.

“Through the generous support and vision of the Willie Nelson ohana, this event will usher in future public Hawaii Farm Aid-style events in support of our family of farmers here in Hawaii,” says Hawaii Farmers Union United President Vincent Mina, who joined POTR on stage playing harmonica on Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.”

The Mahi’ai Foundation plans to provide a model for Maui and the neighbor islands by “uplifting the stewards of our land,” according to their website.

“Mahi’ai is about using the communal power of live music to unite body and soil, educate the community about the importance of the aina, empower local regenerative agricultural programs, and ultimatelycreate a more sustainable future for Hawaii.”

For a number of years, Micah Nelson has envisioned some kind of Farm Aid event on Maui that would support regenerative agriculture.

“I grew up on Maui, and this is a way of giving back a little bit,” explains Micah, who has been touring on the Mainland for the last three months. “I met Vincent Mina, and we started talking about how we should do something for the farmers. I visited his farm in Wailuku, and we talked about the importance of regenerative farming and healthy soil. Later, I was playing a Mana’o Radio show at Casanova [in Makawao], and Jaime Moreland approached me and said, ‘I’ve been envisioning some kind of sustainable concert on Maui.’ We started meeting and brainstorming this event.”

With his dad out on the road a lot and his brother, Lukas, touring with Promise of the Real and Neil Young, it was challenging to pick a time that worked for everyone.

“It’s been a while in the making,” Micah continues. “I knew around my mom’s birthday every year on Aug. 27, we’d all be on Maui. This date worked out because everyone was going to be here.”

Long a champion of farmers, 86-year-old country legend Willie Nelson was able to perform on Maui even though he had to cancel some Mainland tour shows to rest up. At the festival, backed by his sons, he was in top form performing some of his best loved gems and demonstrating his impressive electric guitar playing.

Back on the road again in early September, Willie reported in an interview with San Antonio’s KSAT News that he planned to “keep singing, keep writing. That’s what keeps me going.”

With Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Willie organized the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and raise funds to keep farm families on the land, encouraging a system of agriculture that values family farmers, good food, soil and water, and strong communities.

There had been talk of bringing the actual Farm Aid event to Maui, but it was cost prohibitive.

“I’ve been trying to get Farm Aid to come to Maui for a long time, and they’d love to, but it’s just not cost effective,” says Micah. “It wouldn’t really benefit the farmers. Once I realized that, I said, ‘Well, then I’ll start my own Farm Aid on Maui and it can keep growing as an established aid to the farmers when our own government doesn’t really seem to get the picture.’ We can help them out, have a great time doing it with live music events, and feed the future.”

While the Maui Country Club was a private event, Micah assures the next step is a public show.

“It was easy to do the first one at Maui Country Club because we had done a concert there before, and it was great. Marty Dread’s manager Richard Pechner is a club member, and he helped produce the event. It’s a template for what we eventually want to do in a public place. We did it this way to raise funds so we could seed the foundation, so we can do an annual public concert.”

There were rumors that Paul Simon might also perform at the Mahi’ai Festival after his brilliant MACC benefit concerts, however he was off-island.

“Paul Simon has been so supportive,” says Micah, “He donated part of the proceeds from his concerts at the MACC to the Mahi’ai Foundation. He’s such a cool, humble guy. He’s been happy to help something like this which is so connected to the values that make Maui such a special place.”

Hopefully by next summer or early fall, we’ll see a Maui Farm Aid concert.

“That’s the idea,” Micah concludes. “It’s a thrill to see it coming to life. I’m so excited.”

Micah will soon be featured in an upcoming episode of Southwest Airlines new video series, “Sites and Sounds,” that celebrates musicians and the destinations. The first episode focused on Maui and Lukas Nelson with visiting country artist Nikki Lane.

Willie and his sons will all perform at Farm Aid 2019 in Wisconsin on Sept. 21, alongside Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Bonnie Raitt. Willie will also be among the legends featured in Ken Burns’ latest documentary series “Country Music,” which chronicles country music from its roots in hymns and blues in the early years in the 1920s through the period of rock and roll, and finally into the 1990s, opening on PBS on Sept. 15.

And Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real recently opened (on Aug. 14) for the Rolling Stones in Seattle.

“It was a real honor,” Lukas reported. “It was amazing.”

POTR’s set at the fest included the title song of their latest album, “Turn Off the News (Build a Garden).”

“It’s about the actions you can take when you’re not debilitated by fear from the news, and getting anxious,” Lukas explains. “What we’re trying to do with ‘Turn of the News’ is to encourage people to connect to their local community even more. This (festival) fits right in with what we’re trying to do with the record.”

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