Yesterday in Hershey, PA, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews brought together a group of their musician friends for the sold-out 27th Farm Aid Benefit Concert. Twenty-nine thousand people flocked to the antiquated Hersheypark Stadium, which was constructed in 1939, and probably handles high school football games better than it does giant concerts. Every act played short (under an hour) sets, but the roster was so packed, the show still went over into the windy Pennsylvania night.
When I pre-ordered Farm Aid tickets earlier this year, the lineup was Willie, Neil, Mellencamp, Dave & Tim, Jack Johnson, ALO, Lukas Nelson, and Pegi Young. As the months went on, they added a handful of country acts and the welcome treat of Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. “They tricked us into going to a country concert,” remarked my sister-in-law, as we walked past several people in cowboy hats tailgating amongst the DMB fans.
ALO were scheduled to start at 2:40pm, but when we had our tickets scanned at 2:30, the announcer was finishing their intro. We walked to our seats as ALO warmed things up with “Dead Still Dance,” guitarist Dan Lebowitz showing off his exaggerated movements while soloing. The band followed it with another tune from their latest album, “Speed of Dreams,” in front of a large screen projecting idyllic stock photos of farms and carrots. The stage was flanked by two giant screens that played remarkably clear live video of the show, alternating between crowd shots and close-ups of the musicians. “This song's about prolonging good feelings,” Zach Gill introduced “Storms & Hurricanes,” the ukulele-based love song a perfect companion to the warm sun shining down. And then it was over. Sixteen minutes. What happened to prolonging good feelings? Such is the nature of a benefit concert with 12 acts on the bill.
Pegi Young, Neil’s wife, notorious for not making it for her allotted slot, actually showed up, but we decided to check out the Homegrown Village during her set. The Village gave off the vibe of a school science fair, complete with 3-panel presentation boards on the dangers of fracking and the benefits of compost. “Here’s a really fantastic website on sludge,” said a woman handing me a business card. Okay, no real reason to go back.
Willie’s son, Lukas Nelson, was up next, so we headed back inside the stadium. With a voice similar to his father, although higher-pitched and a little more nasal, he sang “Four Letter Word” and new number “Haiti’s Eyes” before tackling “Here We Are in the Years” by fellow Farm-Aider Neil Young. A showy guitar player, he then gave his searing instrumental solo take on “Amazing Grace.” He closed his set with rocker “Wasted” backed by his band, Promise of the Real.
I got a text message from ALO’s manager saying they’d be in the Village at 4pm. When we arrived at the small stage, it didn’t appear as if it was set for a band to perform: two mic stands, maybe a seat. It turned out to be a discussion with ALO and a local dairy farmer. After asking how they came to be at Farm Aid (Jack Johnson was the answer.), the moderator asked, “So… what else?” It wasn’t organized well at all, so the band and farmer took it upon themselves to attempt to make it interesting. Dave Brogan commented on CSA boxes: “I never knew what kale was before. Kale’s awesome!” “You can fry it. Turn it into a potato chip,” added Gill. We got an inside tip that Jack wasn’t feeling well, but our worries that he wouldn’t perform were dispelled by Lebowitz when he confirmed that he was going to play on a few tunes.
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals opened with the “The Lion the Beast the Beat,” as they did when I saw them at Irving Plaza. After “Never Go Back,” Grace revealed that Mickey Raphael from Willie’s band would be joining on harmonica for the next song. She then looked just offstage and asked Willie if he wanted to play too. Nelson obliged and they performed “Ragged Company.” “I wanna dedicate this song to every farmer in the nation who’s been having trouble with that goddamn drought this summer,” Potter said as she took on “Nothing But the Water” alone with her Flying V and bottleneck slide. She noted that she came from a small farming community in Vermont, but “I’m pretty sure none of ‘em ever wore boots like these, so I’m gonna take them off,” removing her stylish black boots to hop around barefoot for a spunky dose of “Medicine.”
Kenny “Pee Break” Chesney was next, and we trickled into the area underneath the bleachers where the porta-potties were. Beer lines merged with bathroom and food lines to create one big slow-moving clusterfuck that could have been billed as a simulation of life on the feedlot. We finally got back to our seats as Chesney was finishing, shouting, “Thank you guys for loving music!” You don’t get to say that, Kenny.
A video of Dave Matthews that mentioned his contributions to the Farm Aid cause (Keeping family farmers on their land, in case you weren’t aware.) played on the side screens. Now we were in board member territory. Dave Matthews and longtime collaborator Tim Reynolds took their acoustic guitars center stage, and plucked right into “Gravedigger,” a song with an interesting concept of inventing people’s lives from their headstones. “Stay or Leave” had fans singing along to its lofty chorus, and “Don’t Drink the Water” featured a foray into “This Land is Your Land,” which could only be applied to the plight of the farmers. Black and white farming images were projected on the large center screen, interspersed with the DMB dancer logo. The duo played “Funny the Way It Is” next, and I felt like its lyrics hit harder in this format than with the whole band. Dave revealed that he was talking with Willie Nelson one time about the song “Crazy,” which was originally to go, “I’m stupid, stupid for feeling so lonely,” before producers stepped in and changed it. Dave agreed that the word change was a good one, and that he stole it for the beginning of “Crush.” New single “Mercy” and oldie “Dancing Nancies” followed, and Dave ended the set with a lone “Some Devil.” I still don’t really like DMB fans, but I’d go to another show.
Using the exodus of DMB-lovers to our advantage, we made our way through the field fairly easily to check out our food options, which turned out to be incredibly limited and disappointing for a farming event. Are hand-dipped corndogs really the paragon of U.S. family farm production? Maybe Super Pretzel is? I settled on a decent antibiotic and hormone-free bratwurst because the porkchop sandwiches were all gone by then.
Dave Matthews returned to introduce John Mellencamp, who reprised last year’s opener “Authority Song.” Kenny Chesney sat in for “Small Town,” but he didn’t know the lyrics and flubbed it. “He butchered a classic,” declared my sister-in-law. I’m admittedly not a big fan of the Cougar, and I did not keep a setlist. Neither is my brother: “He needs to play a little ditty about Jack and Diane, and get the fuck off the stage.” Nevertheless, I caught him bobbing his head to “Rain on the Scarecrow” and singing along with the entire stadium on “Pink Houses.”
Neil Young & Crazy Horse charged out the gate with a blistering 10-minute version of “Country Home” followed promptly by another scorcher “Ramada Inn.” Neil brought out Willie and began a diatribe on the mission of Farm Aid, stressing the importance of local agriculture over corporate farming. “What we want is for you to buy food that matters. Good food. I hope you know that’s why you’re here,” he said, though judging by the appearance of the majority of crowdmembers (We played a lot of “Pregnant or Just Fat?”), it seemed obvious that most attendees weren’t shopping at farmers markets, but were a product of the processed foods of agribusiness. He continued, “Watch out for this food. There’s nothing wrong with these people from South America that are sending it up here, but we have no idea what they did to get it here. We don’t know what happened, how it got here, how much fuel it used to get here, how much damage it did getting here, what kind of antibiotics are in it, what kind of pesticides are in it.” (It really makes me wonder what kind of speech he’ll give at next week’s Global Festival.) He used the opportunity to introduce “Homegrown,” a Farm Aid anthem. The highlight of the set, however, occurred next. A keyboard disguised as a large, crying bird descended from the rafters, and the band began a jam that sounded like a storm brewing. It churned and bubbled into “Like a Hurricane,” the massive final song.
With Crazy Horse finishing after 11, when the finale was originally supposed to happen, Willie brought forward a Native American farmer to talk during the speedy set change. He essentially said one thing over and over, and it was, “Learn the realities of industrial hemp.” There is a case to be made for hemp farming to be the savior of the family-run farm. However, it probably wouldn’t take very long for a large corporation, likely a pharmaceutical company, to monopolize that industry and out-produce the independent farmers.
The set began as most of Willie Nelson’s sets have begun, with “Whiskey River.” Transitioning into “Still is Still Moving to Me,” which has picked up a reggae lilt ever since he re-recorded it in 2004 with Toots & the Maytals, Nelson set the pace for the remainder, segueing from song to song to cram in as many as possible before midnight. But isn’t that a metaphor for how Willie always sings, just behind the tempo, trying to catch up? The hits found their way in: the aforementioned “Crazy,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” and of course, “On the Road Again.” While most got a thrill slurring along to “Beer for My Horses,” I preferred the understated father-son duet of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe.” Lukas traded words with Willie, who was strumming away on his famed six-string “Trigger,” or the closest thing there exists to a zombie guitar. For the finale, Willie chose a gospel medley of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away,” as friends poured onto the stage to sing backup. The Calhoun Brothers, the Bee Creek Gospel Singers, the Watson Twins, Jamey Johnson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and someone in a full Indian headdress all crowded around the mics, with Grace Potter providing some colorful vocal licks. But it wasn’t over yet. “Roll Me Up,” which contains the refrain “Roll me up and smoke me when I die” made for a jaunty last song of the night, warming everyone’s spirits as chilly gusts of wind whipped through the stadium.
I had a fun time. I got to see some artists for the first time, some of my favorites again, and I learned the term fracking. I would definitely go to another Farm Aid, but I likely wouldn’t go to it at Hershey. There’s no reason to spend 40 minutes moving through a line to pee for one minute. I think I’ll take Neil's advice: keep it local, and pray that they come back to New York.
ANIMAL LIBERATION ORCHESTRA – 09.22.12 – HERSHEYPARK STADIUM, FARM AID (16 minutes)
Dead Still Dance / Speed of Dreams / Storms & Hurricanes
LUKAS NELSON & PROMISE OF THE REAL – 09.22.12 – HERSHEYPARK STADIUM, FARM AID
Four Letter Word / Haiti’s Eyes* / Here We Are in the Years / Amazing Grace > Wasted
GRACE POTTER & THE NOCTURNALS – 09.22.12 – HERSHEYPARK STADIUM, FARM AID (29 minutes)
The Lion the Beast the Beat / Never Go Back / Ragged Company (feat. Willie Nelson) / Nothing But the Water (I) > Medicine
JACK JOHNSON – 09.22.12 – HERSHEYPARK STADIUM, FARM AID (47 minutes)
Better Together / Home / Do You Remember / Good People / Sitting, Waiting, Wishing > Just What I Needed (tease) > Sitting, Waiting, Wishing / Inaudible Melodies > Upside Down / Wasting Time > Bubble Toes / Banana Pancakes / Flake (feat. Dan Lebowitz) / Mudfootball
DAVE MATTHEWS & TIM REYNOLDS – 09.22.12 – HERSHEYPARK STADIUM, FARM AID (50 minutes)
Gravedigger / Stay or Leave / Don’t Drink the Water > This Land is Your Land > Don’t Drink the Water / Funny the Way It Is / Crush / Mercy / Dancing Nancies / Some Devil
NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE – 09.22.12 – HERSHEYPARK STADIUM, FARM AID (58 minutes)
Country Home / Ramada Inn / Mr. Soul / Homegrown (feat. Willie Nelson) / Like a Hurricane
WILLIE NELSON – 09.22.12 – HERSHEYPARK STADIUM, FARM AID (32 minutes)
Whiskey River > Still is Still Moving to Me / Beer for My Horses / Funny How Time Slips Away > Crazy > Night Life / Just Breathe / Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys > On the Road Again / Will the Circle Be Unbroken > I’ll Fly Away / Roll Me Up