Earlier this year, Farm Aid President Willie Nelson celebrated his 80th birthday, and the man shows no signs of slowing down. Beloved by millions not only for his music, but also for his activism and outlaw persona, he gets standing ovations the minute he hits the stage, before even playing a note. But if it’s actually possible to upstage Willie at Farm Aid, one man accomplished it at this year’s festival (which took place Saturday at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga, New York). And he’s fourteen years Willie’s senior.
All day, murmurs were heard backstage about a “special guest” who would be performing at the concert. The big reveal came during John Mellencamp‘s set. After playing “Pink Houses,” he mentioned that that song had been inspired by artists who came before him who tried to make a difference with music. “When I was growing up, my parents used to play his records, and I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I could do this someday. Ladies and gentlemen, Pete Seeger!” The folk music icon then took the stage, armed with his banjo. “Friends, at age 94, I don’t have much voice left. But: here’s a song I think you know, and if you sing it, why, we’ll make a good sound!” After that, he called the board members of Farm Aid – Nelson, Neil Young, Mellencamp and Dave Matthews – back to the stage to sing “This Land Is Your Land” with him. Midway through the song, Seeger told the audience, “I’ve got a verse you’ve never heard before!” In the classic folk tradition of adding verses to song to make them more current and relevant, he sang, “New York is my home, New York is your home, from the upstate mountains down to the ocean foam/With all kinds of people… New York was meant to be frak free,” earning the largest roars of the night, from an audience heavy with farmers and other upstate New Yorkers who make their living from agriculture.
THE PRESS CONFERENCE: “GO FRAK YOURSELF!”
Earlier in the day, Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and Matthews took a different stage together, at the pre-concert press conference. Nelson greeted the audience, comprised mostly of press, artists and farmers from across the country, saying, “We’re glad we’re here, (but) we’re sorry we still have to be here. We’re here asking you, ‘What do you need?’ We try to tell everyone else what the farmer needs, because you’re very important to our country.”
Nelson later added: “Our job is to keep America growing and keep the farmers on the land. The future farmers of America I think will save us.” Meanwhile, Young expressed that he is depressed at the farming situation in America and has no faith in the government giving farmers what they need. He would later go on to express this believe numerous times throughout his set. “Farmers are on the frontlines. They are on the cutting edge of what’s going on in the world today, he said.” Mellencamp said that he feels that “we are at a tipping point where Americans see that something has to be done” about the agricultural industry being heavily influenced by corporate interests. On the other hand, he lamented that “the word ‘organic’ has been hijacked” and is just a marketing term.
Focusing on another environmental issue that concerns farmers from upstate New York (and which Seeger sang about later in the day), Dave Matthews said, “If you absolutely have to frak something, why not frak yourself?” The audience, filled with anti-fraking protesters roared with laughter and approval. Nearly three decades after starting Farm Aid, Nelson said “To those who disagree with us: we’re not happy until you’re not happy!”
JOHN MELLENCAMP: A FEW CHORDS AND THE TRUTH
Neil Young has never felt any need to cater to the audience whatsoever (more on that shortly). So, it’s good that John Mellencamp always plays before him, and can always be relied on to knock out a healthy dose of classics. And he did, opening with “Authority Song” (but avoided playing only hits, by following up with an underrated 2010 track “No One Cares About Me”). After “Check It Out” his band left the stage, and he did a solo acoustic “Jack And Diane” — accompanied by the crowd of thousands. “I can’t believe the song has lasted this long!” he said. Then came “Small Town” (“It’s the same chords as the last one!” he joked), Farm Aid’s unofficial anthem, “Rain On The Scarecrow,” “Paper In Fire,” “Crumbling Down” and “Pink Houses.” Several Jack and Dave fans in the audience seemed surprised that they knew so many of his songs. Minutes after his set, he introduced Neil Young, saying “I hope someday that I’m bringing Neil onstage and we’re the same age as Pete and we’re laughing and we’re singing and we’re still entertaining people and still trying to say something!” That seems entirely possible: neither artist shows signs of slowing down. Or mellowing out.
NEIL YOUNG: “I WORK FOR ME!” Ah, Neil Young.Conventional wisdom would say that, if you’re putting on a benefit show and you want people to pay attention to the message, you entertain them while you perform. Of course, no one would ever accuse Young of subscribing to conventional wisdom. Doing a solo acoustic set, he seemed as passionate about speaking to the audience as he did about performing for them. Talking about the agricultural biotech company Monsanto (the very name of which can be relied on to inspire boos, hissing and worse from family farmers), he decried corporations who valued quarterly profits over sustainable farming. And while the audience was with him during his first sermon (which came shortly after his opening song, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind”) soon the crowd got rowdy. “Did I hear, ‘Come on, let’s go!’?” he asked the audience, incredulously, during another of his rants. “I work for me, buddy!” Perhaps referencing the vocal and loud drunks in the audience, he mused, “Sometimes, these things aren’t fun to talk about.” Speaking of “not fun,” he later related a conversation that he had with Pete Seeger backstage about a Seeger’s friend, the folk singer Phil Ochs, who committed suicide in 1976. In his story, he referenced Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994 (although he didn’t mention the Nirvana singer by name), all part of making a point that life is short. He then covered Ochs’ “Changes,” saying, “You probably haven’t ever heard this song, and it’s long as hell.” To be fair, he also covered a more well known folk song, Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe,” along with two of his biggest hits, “Heart Of Gold” and “Old Man.”
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— Brian Ives and Annie Reuter, Radio.com