At a press conference before this year’s Farm Aid, Neil Young said that saving family farms should be considered “A mission from God!” Throughout the day, Young certainly spoke, and performed, as if he was, indeed, on a divine mission.

Brian Snyder, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture said, “You heard it here first! And you didn’t even know that the Blues Brothers were on the bill!” referencing the classic John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd film.

During the press conference, he read an emotional letter sent to him from a dairy farmer from Iowa, explaining the challenges of running a family owned farm.   “We have sold nearly everything we own, just to stay in business,” he read. Young stressed the need for farmers to be represented to the government, in the same way that unions have representation.

Young also spoke passionately from the stage during his set, urging the audience to buy food that is farmed locally.  “Buy a steak that didn’t spend its life in a cage, one that was not shot up with antibiotics!” He added, “ ‘Safe’ is not a good name for some of the food (corporate farms) sell.” He thanked the audience for attending, “You’re here because you’re part of a great movement!” He also congratulated them: Pennsylvania, he said, has one of the best small farm systems in the country.

Young’s passion and fury carried into his set with longtime backing band Crazy Horse. While he asked a lot of the audience (buy organic, support local farms), he didn’t seem too interested in audience requests.  But that’s always the case with Neil Young concerts: he follows his muse, and (for the most part), the audience accepts that. They opened with “Country Home” from their 1990 reunion album Ragged Glory, a ten-minute plus guitar jam.  He followed that with “Ramada Inn,” from his upcoming Psychedelic Pill.  He’s been playing that song on tour lately, but at over fifteen minutes, some in the audience used the song for a bathroom break, or to begin their trek to their cars.  After that, he rewarded the audience with a semi-hit: a 1967 song from his former band, Buffalo Springfield, “Mr. Soul.” That seemed like an ironic choice:  Young did a brief reunion tour with the surviving members of that band – Stephen Stills and Richie Furay – last year, and had planned on doing more shows this year. Until he ditched those plans and got back together with Crazy Horse (a common theme throughout Young’s career is last-minute changes of direction that leave other musicians, often Stills, in his wake).

After that, he was joined by Nelson for “Homegrown”; Nelson sitting in on that song has become something of a Farm Aid tradition.  The song, a sort of cheeky paean to marijuana, was  released in 1977 to little acclaim, but which has gone on to take new meaning to organic farmers, and has become an unofficial anthem of Farm Aid. After that, Nelson left, and Young launched into his fifth and final song (and the third that stretched past the ten minute mark), the epic “Like A Hurricane.”

It wasn’t Young’s first or last appearance of the day: he joined his wife, Pegi Young, onstage hours earlier for her set, playing electric guitar on her song “Love Like Water,” and he joined Willie Nelson for the finale – an environmental anthem of sorts, “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die.”

Young’s catalog made one other appearance during the day: Lukas Nelson (son of Willie) performed a cover of Neil’s 1969 song “Here We Are In The Years” during his afternoon set.

john mellencamp and kenny chesney Neil Young, John Mellencamp Highlight Farm Aid: “A Mission From God”
(photo of John Mellencamp and Kenny Chesney by Maria Ives)

John Mellencamp’s set preceded Young’s, in sticking with tradition (Nelson always plays last, with Young before him, Mellencamp before him, and Dave Matthews – a Farm Aid board member since 2001 – before him).  If Young’s set was Dylan-esque in its avoidance of doing greatest hits, Mellencamp’s performance was Dylan-esque in his recasting of his own hits. He kicked off his set with a rockabilly reimagining of “Authority Song,” which sounded reminiscent of “I Fought The Law.”  The heartland rocker seemed to have some vocal issues, and the result was his voice sounding like a cross between Bob Dylan ‘srecent barking vocal style and Howlin’ Wolf. While it threw some fans, it gave his songs more of a sense of dread, which was appropriate on “Scarecrow” and “Paper In Fire.”  But Kenny Chesney joined him on stage, sweetening up “Small Town,” another highlight of the day.  Mellencamp served up many of his biggest hits (he also played “Check It Out,” “Crumblin’ Down” and “Pink Houses”) but also touched on his recent catalog with “West End” (from 2008’s Life Death Love and Freedom) and “Longest Days” (from 2010’s No Better Than This). The latter song was prefaced by a funny story about his grandmother who lived to 100, and who tried, unsuccessfully, to get him to take prayer seriously, saying “Life is short, even in it’s longest days.”

The concert was supposed to end at 11, but Nelson hit the stage shortly after that. Before playing a note, he introduced Native American musician/activist/actor John Trudell, who submitted to the audience the idea that selling industrial hemp would save a lot of family farms that have closed down. And with that, Willie launched into his classic “Whiskey River,” and in quick succession played “Still Is Still Moving To Me,” “Beer For My Horses,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life.”  He was joined by his son Lukas for much of his set, and they sang a duet on their cover of Pearl Jam’s ballad “Just Breathe” (from Willie’s latest album, Heroes). After “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and “On The Road Again,” he invited the Bee  Creek Gospel Singers to join him for some gospel songs. Other performers, including Grace Potter and Young, also joined. First they played “I’ll Fly Away.”  The next gospel number, which closed the show, was anything but traditional: “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die,” which accentuated Trudell’s earlier point.  While maybe not a number you’d hear in any church, it certainly is the gospel to Nelson. And, he hopes in the future, to small farmers.

For a full review of the concert, which also included performances by Dave Matthews, Jamey Johnson, Jack Johnson and Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, go to CBSPhilly.

— Brian Ives, CBS Local


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