While other all-star benefit concerts have fallen silent due to compassion fatigue and diminishing public interest, Farm Aid rolls on. Yesterday's sold-out event at Nissan Pavilion was the 12th Farm Aid since Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young sowed the original seeds in 1985. Since then, they and hundreds of other musicians have labored nearly every year to produce fresh crops of funding for, and raise public awareness of, the plight of the American family farmer.
When the first Farm Aid concert was held in Champaign, Ill., the underlying, unifying issue was a tidal wave of foreclosures. Now it's the encroachment of factory farming, the increasing control exerted by major corporations and particularly the Freedom to Farm Act, which, family farmers argue, favors agribusiness.
As Nelson put it, Farm Aid is an ongoing initiative to make sure the family farmer "continues to be a part of the country's future." He linked those prospects with "the future of communities, families, business and churches, the quality of food, the environment and so much more."
Such emotional messages--and calls to support today's Family Farm March in support of new farm policies--were an important part of yesterday's 11-hour concert, but the focus was clearly the music. After all, though there were plenty of farmers on hand--hard-working and proud despite the circumstances--the majority of the 23,000 fans at Nissan were likely drawn by the diverse lineup, which included such pop stars as the Dave Matthews Band and Barenaked Ladies and country stars Trisha Yearwood, Deana Carter, Sawyer Brown and Mandy Barnett.
The full house was itself probably less important than the much larger audience watching eight hours of Farm Aid coverage on Country Music Television or the media attention at least temporarily focused on farmers as a result of the event.
Still, the dollars counted and mounted: Since 1985 Farm Aid has distributed almost $15 million to farm organizations, churches and relief agencies that serve farming communities in 44 states, as well as 700,000 pounds of canned food for struggling family farmers.
The 15-act concert kicked off with the rough-and-tumble rockin' country of Bare Jr. and the Supersuckers, followed by earnest country pleadings from Larry Gatlin (who channeled Roy Orbison on "Crying") and Barnett (who evoked Patsy Cline on an aching "Hurt" and the Western swing-style "Ever True, Evermore").
Those early sets were followed by a blistering performance by blues guitarist and singer Susan Tedeschi and a genial one by barefoot diva Carter, who proved particularly strong recapping her breakthrough hit, "Strawberry Wine," and on a lilting cover of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin.' "
There was an engaging raucousness to subsequent sets by Brown and by Steve Earle (especially on the closing "Copperhead Road") before Yearwood's hit-heavy performance, which included such crowd-pleasers as "She's in Love With the Boy," "The Song Remembers When" and "How Do I Live."
After a brief, and brave, solo acoustic set in which Keb' Mo' offered his supple blend of folk and country blues, Farm Aid kicked into high gear with Barenaked Ladies, the first group to mix familiar hits with material specifically tailored to the event. The latter included an improvised, occasionally inspired rap about the joys and perils of family farming and a wild closing number that began with a quirky variation on Biz Markie's "Just a Friend" and ended with a mind-boggling human beat-box medley fusing "My Heart Will Go On," "Funk Soul Brother," "Do You Believe?" and "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)."
Even better was the Ladies persuading a visiting Indiana corn farmer named Chris to strum an electric guitar (while they did the fingering) and suddenly vamping into "Chris and Corn," a wickedly funny takeoff on Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp's classic "Jack and Diane."
After a familiarly propulsive set by the Dave Matthews Band--featuring Neil Young jamming on "All Along the Watchtower"--Mellencamp offered his own "Jack and Diane," along with such familiar heartland rockers as "Blood on the Scarecrow," the swaggering "Authority Song" and a questioning "Ain't That America."
The evening's most intensely personal and passionate performance belonged to Young; it was acoustic yet internally electric, from the genial "Homegrown" (once about marijuana, now devoted to a grander purpose) to the elegiac "Farmer," an elegant and respectful "Mother Earth" (performed on Farfisa organ and mouth harp to the familiar melody of "The Water Is Wide") and the familial homage "Daddy Went Walking."
As engaging as Willie Nelson's closing set was, it was too familiar, from the opening "Whiskey River" and "On the Road Again" to a delightfully offhand medley of past hits written for others ("Funny How Time Slips Away/Crazy/Nightlife"). But what was Nelson thinking when he launched into "Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys"? In this town, on game day? Guess he didn't hear the bad news.
The marathon event--which included a daylong telethon as part of CMT's coverage--concluded with a medley of "Amazing Grace" and "I Saw the Light," in which Nelson and his band were joined by Yearwood, Carter, assorted Ladies and others still at Nissan after a long day. It wasn't great music, but it was great spirit. In any case, Nelson's more crucial performance may have come offstage when he, Mellencamp and Young pulled Farm Aid together to help one of the few work forces that face more difficult circumstances than the average musician.
CAPTION: Farm Aid co-founder Willie Nelson, letting his hair down backstage at last night's concert.
CAPTION: Deana Carter wows the crowd with "Did I Shave My Legs for This?"