Willie Nelson’s annual Farm Aid benefit at the KeyBank Pavilion outside Pittsburgh on Saturday (Sept. 16) proved that this concert may the one place in America today to unite blue and red, urban and rural, for a common cause: supporting the men and women who grow the nation’s food.
Along with longtime co-headliners Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, and accompanied by an all-star bill — Sheryl Crow, Jack Johnson, the Avett Brothers and more — Nelson brought Farm Aid to Burgettstown, Pa., in deeply red Washington County, drawing audiences from Pittsburgh, 30 miles west, in solidly blue Allegheny County. Farmers traveled to the sold-out show from the coal country of West Virginia and from the urban farms of inner-city Pittsburgh.
For more than three decades, under the Farm Aid banner, Nelson and friends have raised their voices in song for family farmers, raising some $50 million to help them remain on their land. Farm Aid is music’s longest-running concert for a cause.
Those farmers now see their livelihoods threatened by a new president’s policies: the denial of climate change while hurricanes sweep across their land, a crackdown on the immigrant labor they rely upon to bring in their crops, and a rollback of regulations that promises enrich to corporations at the expense of farmers and ranchers.
So, while this was the 32nd annual Farm Aid, this one was different: This was the first Farm Aid of the Trump era.
Yet in a joyous day of music and multiple musical collaborations, and in comments by artists onstage and backstage, Farm Aid 2017 celebrated the power of community and rejected political acrimony.
“America is already great,” said Young pointedly in an onstage press conference that preceded the concert. “We don’t need to apologize. We don’t need to feel bad.”
Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar, whose organizing skills have built the Farm Aid organization over the past three decades, added, “You can’t paint rural America with one brush.”
Nelson may be the coolest 84-year-old on the planet but he doesn’t shy from displaying the religious upbringing of his small hometown in Abbott, Texas. It’s the source, he has said, of the spirit of philanthropy which has guided Farm Aid. He opened the show at midday Saturday, as he has for years, by singing the Lords Prayer.
Farm Aid is “like Christmas,” said Willie’s son, Lukas, leader of Promise of the Real. “It brings the musical family together.” Many of Farm Aid’s stars make repeat appearances at the event, traveling at their own expense, to support the organization’s cause.
“We’ve got too many friends here,” said Jack Johnson during his set, as he brought out Crow, Nathaniel Rateliff and Jayme Johnson for a rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall be Released,” then invited Lukas Nelson and the Avett Brothers to perform alongside him.
This summer, Willie Nelson has been headlining the Outlaw Music Festival tour with several of the artists who also joined the Farm Aid bill: Crow, Rateliff, Price, the Avett Brothers, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. As a result, even by Farm Aid’s high standards, this was a year of magnificent musical collaborations.
During her remarkable, high-energy set, Crow invited Willie and Lukas Nelson, Johnson and Price to join her onstage to perform “Midnight Rider,” in tribute to the late Gregg Allman, who died in May at age 69.
With new political winds blowing across the nation’s farm fields, Farm Aid’s musicians, in conversations backstage, spoke of both their concerns and their optimism.
“The major thing where I feel there is a chasm is in the [lack of] belief in science,” Crow said. “It’s not just going to affect farmers, it’s going to affect everything and everyone. If you have a government that is not supporting science, then it’s really not supporting its people
“The great hope, really,” she continued, “is that, on a state level and even on a city level, there is a lot that can be done that doesn’t rely on the [federal] government.”
Nathanile Rateliff, who grew up in Missouri, spoke at Farm Aid with organizers from the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, who reported they were “busier than ever” in the past year “trying to bring rural communities together again.
“For people who grew up in the cities, and never lived in rural America,” Rateliff said. “I think they probably have an idea of everybody being just being racists, rednecks, bigots and that’s not true.”
A first-time performer this year at Farm Aid, Valerie June said her support for the Good Food movement — “I’m a huge plant lover!” — is her response to the turmoil of the times.
“What I feel about politics is that the healing starts at the dinner table,” she says. “We all can come together as a community, [all] races, simply eating some food, and chowing down, and realizing there is a kindred spirit between us.”
And Lukas Nelson reflected on the successful efforts of family farms to survive. It’s a model, he suggested, for all community-rooted activism.
“There’s a silver lining to everything,” he said, sitting aboard his tour bus. “In the political environment that we are in right now, people on both sides have realized that that we’ve been failed.
“So people are taking initiatives themselves to reach out to their neighbors and create their own economies, basically. No matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, you realize that now is the time that we need to act. People are realizing that in farming and in other areas too.”
Farm Aid every year features its guiding foursome — Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and Matthews — in back-to-back performances that last well into the night.
In an acoustic set that had all the energy of a full Dave Matthews Band concert, Matthews and bandmate Tim Reynolds exchanged entrancing fretwork. Matthews debuted a new song that had DMB fans jumping onto Twitter (identifying the new track as both “Do You Remember” and “The Odds Are Against Us,” from prominent lyrics).
Mellencamp, who staged an outdoor tour this summer for the first time in more than a decade, sang more powerfully than he has in years. Along with the most hit-laden set of the night, Mellencamp played “Rain on the Scarecrow,” the most moving song in the Farm Aid repertoire. “Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow,” he sang, “This land fed a nation this land made me so proud / And son I’m just sorry they’re just memories for you now.”
During Mellencamp’s set, and throughout the day, the video screens behind the artists projected photos of farm landscapes, farmers, small towns and more. The work of photographers Sabine Carey, Lise Metzger, Patty O’Brien and Molly Peterson, the images are a compelling part of the Farm Aid experience.
Neil Young’s set left fans amazed. Taking the stage with Promise of the Real for his first full live performance in nearly a year, Young opened with a ferocious version of “F—in’ Up.” But he was just warming up. “Cortez the Killer” brought an extended guitar jam with Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real and led into rush of fan favorites, “Cinnamon Girl,” “Heart of Gold,” “Comes a Time,” “Like a Hurricane” and “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
The one musician whose performances stood out across multiple sets during Farm Aid was Lukas Nelson, who is coming into his own as a star on the rise. During the night’s closing set, father and son acoustic and electric guitar solos, respectively, on “Texas Flood,” as Young backed them up with blues harmonica.
Willie Nelson’s show-closing finale is always a celebration of the Farm Aid community and this year was no exception as almost every artist on the bill came onstage for a medley of “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “Living in the Promisedland.”
Nelson first recorded the latter song in 1986, not long after he founded Farm Aid. But as farmers wonder if new immigration policies will threaten their workers — and as Nelson’s audience seeks respite from divisiveness — his words rang clear in the night:
“Give us your tired and weak / And we will make them strong / Bring us your foreign songs / And we will sing along / Leave us your broken dreams / We’ll give them time to mend / There’s still a lot of love / Living in the Promisedland.”