Earlier this year, Farm Aid President Willie Nelson celebrated his 80th birthday. 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.
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 (see photos from the show). And he’s 14 years Willie’s senior. We’re talking about folk-music icon Pete Seeger, who took the stage after a rousing introduction from John Mellencamp.
“When I was growing up, my parents used to play his records,” Mellencamp said of Seeger, “and I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I could do this someday.”
Seeger came, of course, armed with his banjo. “Friends, at age 94, I don’t have much voice left,” he said. “But here’s a song I think you know, and if you sing it, why, we’ll make a good sound!” He then 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.
Earlier in the day, Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and Matthews spoke to an audience of press, artists and farmers from across the country. “We’re glad we’re here, [but] we’re sorry we still have to be here,” Nelson said. “Our job is to keep America growing and keep the farmers on the land.”
“Farmers are on the frontlines,” echoed Young. “They are on the cutting edge of what’s going on in the world today.”
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.
After the press conference, Nelson welcomed Radio.com to his tour bus, where he expanded on some of the themes discussed earlier. “When you’re sitting there at the breakfast table, eating bacon and eggs and it comes from 1500 miles away, and the [local] farmer could have done it for you, that’s more obvious these days,” he explained. “Our aim is to get more and more people thinking about organic farming and good health food and taking care of their families. I think the word is getting out.”
A first time performer at Farm Aid, Kacey Musgraves admitted that she “freaked out” when she learned she’d be playing at the event. “First of all, I’m such a huge Willie Nelson fan. Not only Willie, but Neil Young [who] my dad always played growing up around the house. It’s a lot of great, credible music and it’s a good cause,” she told Radio.com. “There’s not too many causes I get super fired up about, but good, whole food and supporting family farms is one that I can really get behind.” A point she stressed throughout her performance, Musgraves’ set featured several tracks off her most recent album, Same Trailer, Different Park including “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Silver Lining,” and the banjo-infused “Step Off,” which led into Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Closing her set with “Follow Your Arrow,” Musgraves said the track was “inspired by people of all kinds and doing what makes you happy.” As she conducted the crowd to sing along, she urged, “I want you to sing loud so Willie can hear it.”
Willie Nelson once sang that “sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year,” but Johnson has made sad songs his own trademark. It’s a point he brought home with his powerful Farm Aid set, which included such standards from his repertoire as “High Cost Of Living,” “Can’t Cash My Checks,” “In Color” and “Just Give It Away” (the latter a No. 1 for George Strait). If those weepers didn’t do the trick, Johnson also sang the saddest version of “You Are My Sunshine” we’ve ever heard–so powerful that it may even have caused Dave Matthews and Jack Johnson’s hard-partying fans to drop some tears in their beers.
Conventional wisdom says 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 Neil 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.”
In contrast to Neil Young, Willie doesn’t do too much talking from the stage, instead cramming his set with as many hits as he can into about an hour. So he and his incredible band (which includes son Lukas on guitar, sister Bobbie on piano and Mickey Raphael on harmonica) zip through loads of country classics in record time, including “Whiskey River,” “Still Is Still Moving,” “Good Hearted Woman,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life.” One of the nice things about Nelson – and one that you don’t hear about enough – is that he’s added a number of new songs to his legacy recently, that hold up to his finest moments. Exhibit A: his cover of Pearl Jam’s “Breathe” (sung as a duet with Lukas) was stunning.
He was also joined by Hawaiian singer Lily Meola for “Will You Remember Me,” from his upcoming album To All The Girls… She joined him, along with Musgraves, Young, Jamey Johnson and Matthews shortly after for another recent song – which he referred to as “a new gospel song,” “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die.”