Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Martin Benjamin, Donna Fitzgerald, Stanley Johnson
It wasn’t the musical highlight of last Saturday’s Farm Aid celebration/festival/fundraiser at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, but it was certainly the emotional heart of the day. Introduced by John Mellencamp, surprise guest Pete Seeger ambled out on stage with his longneck banjo in hand.
“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,” he said, picking his banjo and launching into a sing-along rendition of “If I Had a Hammer.” Then he invited the rest of the Farm Aid headliners/board of directors – Mellencamp, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Dave Matthews – out onstage to help him to lead the crowd through Woody Guthrie’s classic, “This Land Is Your Land.” Seeger closed out the song by adding a new and timely verse that ended with the lyric, “New York was meant to be frack-free.”
The 94-year-old Seeger’s voice was little more than a cracked whisper, and he had to refer to his notes to be sure that he got all of the superstars names right when he introduced them, but it was nonetheless a magical moment.
Led by Jen O’Connor and Eric Krans, Nippertown’s own the Parlor kicked off Farm Aid at 12noon with a high-spirited set on the Homegrown Stage, as they launched into nuggets like “Tear Down the Coastline” and “The Snake in the Woodpile” (with Krans seemingly channeling the late Jeff Buckley) before bringing out B3nson Family members Adam and Alex Muro and Lou Apicello to add some horn-fueled fire to the psychedelic swirl of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
The big amphitheater stage got started about a half hour later with gospel group the Blackwood Quartet singing “How Great Thou Art” and “Working On a Building.” The acts early in the day only got a 10-15 minute slot (although the sets did grow longer as the day wore on), but Jesse Lenat – seen this summer at Capital Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of the musical “Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers” – did a nice job with his own rough-hewn material, bolstered by some tasty slide guitar from his brother David Lenet.
Insects vs. Robots seemed like the odd-band-out on the fest’s line-up, the five-piece Los Angeles psychedelic band sounding something like a 21st century Incredible String Band. Bahamas (the nom de rock of Canadian singer-songwriter Afie Jurvanen) was a real highlight, backed only by a drummer and a pair of female backing vocalists. Together, they churned out an impressively full-sounding handful of sunny pop songs with a dark undercurrent.
Introduced as “the prodigal child of country music,” Carlene Carter took the stage solo for some traditional folk (“Blackjack Davey”), country gospel (“Heaven’s Bright Shore”) and a preview of her upcoming album with the autobiographical “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” which melded into the Carter Family classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Pegi Young isn’t going to win any awards for her singing, but she’s got a crack band, the Survivors, featuring the great Spooner Oldham on keyboards. The band was even better than expected, as the regular line-up was bolstered by harmonica man Mickey Raphael (from Willie Nelson’s band) and Pegi’s husband on electric guitar (although it seemed as though precious few folks on the jam-packed lawn had any idea that Neil Young had snuck onstage for an early afternoon appearance and played her whole set).
Also in the family tradition of Farm Aid, Lukas Nelson (yes, Willie’s son) and his band Promise of the Real took the stage and delivered the rockin’-est set of the day, highlighted by the howling, epic blues-rocker “Don’t Take Me Back,” featured an extended guitar solo by Nelson… with his teeth.
Grabbing the most stage time of any of the musicians, Lukas Nelson also played the whole fest-closing set with his dad and sat in with several other acts during the day, including Toad the Wet Sprocket, who pulled off a surprising rendition of “Shotgun Willie.” (Mickey Raphael also spread his talents around, playing with Pegi Young, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Carlene Carter and Amos Lee throughout the day.)
On the covers front, Amos Lee played a short solo set that wrapped up with an emotionally charged rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” while country outlaw Jamey Johnson and his band offered up a solidly rocking set that included a mournful, bluesy take on “You Are My Sunshine.” Kasey Musgraves not only played her own brilliant songs “Merry Go Round” and “Follow Your Arrow,” but also dipped into Bob Marley’s songbag for “Three Little Birds.” And clearly a crowd favorite, Jack Johnson wrapped up his set with a cruise through Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic.”
Neil Young topped them all, however. Introduced by Mellencamp as “one of the best songwriters of our generation, if not the best,” Young offered only two of his own songs – “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold,” both from 1972’s “Harvest” – during his solo set. He spent the rest of his set honoring other songwriters, including Bob Dylan (“Blowin’ in the Wind”), Gordon Lighfoot (a lovely rendition of “Early Morning Rain”), Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe,” Ivory Joe hunter’s vintage R&B nugget “Since I Met You, Baby” and a heart-wrenching rendition of Phil Ochs’ “Changes.” Lots of folks were grumbling about Young’s song selection as they headed for the exits, but I thought it was quite marvelous and bold.
The rain came in during Mellencamp’s set, but it didn’t dampen his fire, especially when he and his band ramped up his back-to-back set-closers, “Crumblin’ Down” and “Little Pink Houses.” Crowd favorite Matthews was seated center stage with right-hand man Tim Reynolds doing the heavy guitar work, as they nailed the opening “Save Me” and a tasty, slide guitar-fueled rendition of “Cornbread” with a just a pair of acoustic guitars.
The 80-year-old Grand Old Man of Country Music (and the Farm Aid instigator) Willie Nelson wrapped up the nearly 12-hour musical marathon, whipping through a nice mix of his hits (“Good Hearted Woman,” “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” his traditional opener “Whiskey River”) with the zen of “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” a duet with up-and-coming Texas singer Lily Meola on “Will You Remember Mine” and best of all, a duet with his son Lukas on Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe.”
It was a long, over-crowded and ultimately soaking wet Farm Aid, but in the end it was well worth it.
Andy Greene’s review at Rolling Stone
Thomas Dimopoulos’ review at Saratoga Wire
Erica Miller’s photographs at The Saratogian
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Later, during his solo set, Neil Young played some classics, like Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ and his own ‘Old Man’ and’“Heart of Gold.’ But his set was dominated by blunt lecturing. He put his guitar down and walked the stage, calling for action. ‘America is the garden of the world … but we’re threatened,’ he said, calling out chemical companies for ruining the nation’s farms. He spoke emphatically for several minutes between each song, sometimes angrily, sometimes philosophically. ‘What can you do?’ he said ‘Support your family farms.’ Willie Nelson’s son, Lukas, played a great set early in the day. Introduced as the ‘future of Farm Aid,’ Lukas’ vocals sounded a lot like his father, both during a ballad and when he talked.”
WILLIE NELSON & FAMILY SET LIST
Still Is Still Movin’
Will You Remember Mine (duet with Lily Meola)
Good Hearted Woman (Waylon Jennings)
Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys
Just Breathe (Pearl Jam)
Texas Flood (Fenton Robinson)
Funny How Time Slips Away
I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train (Billy Joe Shaver)
Shoeshine Man (Tom T. Hall)
City of New Orleans (Steve Goodman)
Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die
I Saw the Light
NEIL YOUNG SET LIST
Blowin’ in the Wind (Bob Dylan)
Early Morning Rain (Gordon Lightfoot)
Heart of Gold
Since I Met You Baby (Ivory Joe Hunter)
Reason to Believe (Tim Hardin)
Changes (Phil Ochs)
PETE SEEGER SET LIST
If I Had a Hammer
This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie)
JOHN MELLENCAMP SET LIST
No One Cares About Me
Check It Out
Jack and Diane
Rain on the Scarecrow
Paper in Fire
DAVE MATTHEWS & TIM REYNOLDS SET LIST
So Damn Lucky
Grace Is Gone
JACK JOHNSON SET LIST
Sitting, Waiting, Wishing
Shot Reverse Shot
Whole Lotta Love > Staple It Together
At or With Me
JAMEY JOHNSON SET LIST
High Cost of Living
That Lonesome Song
Can’t Cash My Checks
You Are My Sunshine
KACEY MUSGRAVES SET LIST
The Trailer Song
Step Off > Three Little Birds (Bob Marley)
Merry Go Round
Follow Your Arrow
BAHAMAS SET LIST
I Got You Babe (not the Sonny & Cher song)
Caught Me thinking
Your Sweet Touch
Lost in the Light