Farm Aid '17 Review
The 32nd Annual Farm Aid concert was held at KeyBank Pavilion on Saturday, September 17th in Burgettstown, PA. The all-day event is not only about music, but also about raising awareness and helping out the family farmer. According to Farm Aid’s web site: “Farm Aid has raised more than $50 million to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture. Farm Aid is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep family farmers on the land.”
There were several activities and booths for fans to get more information about family farming and to purchase homegrown food. Actually, the majority of the concession stands had homegrown food choices and homemade condiments.
Another cool thing was the “Zero Waste Stations” that were around the concession stands. Volunteers helped fans recycle their bottles and compost their unused food and containers. There really isn’t a reason why this shouldn’t be done for every concert at every venue; imagine how much waste could be saved with a little bit of effort?
The event started with a press conference which had Farm Aid’s Board of Directors (which includes Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews) along with other artists and local farmers speak about their mission.
The concert started a little after 12:30 and featured some up and coming acts such as The Blackwood Quartet, Insects vs. Robots, Valerie June and Lukas Nelson & The Promise of the Real. All of these acts got to perform three or four songs of original material. Lukas Nelson was the real standout from this group and he is a great guitarist. He was definitely more of a rocker and I look forward to seeing him in the future.
Blackberry Smoke made their first appearance at Farm Aid and made a great impression. These southern rockers played a nice five song set that featured the rocking “Six Ways To Sunday” the laid back “One Horse Town” and closed with the great “Ain’t Much Left of Me.” If you enjoy Southern Rock, you have to check these guys out. They are one of the best new bands out there.
Jamey Johnson was the next artist to take the stage. Johnson decided to pay tribute to several acts by playing six cover songs. Opening up with a great version of The Band’s “Cripple Creek” Johnson and his great backing band played two Don Williams songs “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” and “Til The Rivers All Run Dry.” Johnson had one of the early highlights by playing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” which included the verse that Guthrie originally omitted. He closed his set with Jerry Reed’s “East Down and Bound.”
Next on deck was Margo Price. Price played a good five song set of traditional country music. Songs like “Weakness,” “Paper Cowboy” and “Hurtin (On The Bottle)” all hit the mark. I expect big things from her in the coming years.
Denver based band Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats really got things rockin’ with their two man horn section and upbeat songs. Audience members were up and dancing to tunes like “I Need Never Get Old” and “Out On The Weekend.” Familiar drinking song and gold award winning record “S.O.B.” seemed to resonate with this crowd as everyone clapped along. What a fun band to watch.
Another fun band that continued to rock out were The Avett Brothers. This band is part Americana, part bluegrass, part folk and part indie rock. One thing for sure is that is band is all fun. The band features a banjo, fiddle, cello, bass, guitar and drums and all members seem to be in constant motion. At one point, Seth Avett jumped into the photographers' pit to get closer to the people in the front row. This entertaining band played a seven-song set that included “Laundry Room,” “Ain’t No Man” and “Slight Figure of Speech.”
Jack Johnson opened his set with a song he wrote last year. Willie Nelson told him all great songs have "three chords and the truth." Well, Johnson said that this song had three chords and was absolutely true. He then went into “Willie Got Me Stoned And Took All My Money” which, I guess, is pretty self-explanatory. Johnson then brought out his band and they launched into “Good People.” Johnson also summoned Sheryl Crow to help him sing Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” He then played his own song “Bubble Toes.” The Avett Brothers came out and jammed on the final two songs, including the set closing “Better Together.”
As the evening wore on, the acts got bigger. Next up was multi-platinum selling and nine-time Grammy winning artist Sheryl Crow. Crow opened up by playing an acoustic guitar on “Everyday Is A Winding Road” and then switched to keyboards on “My Favorite Mistake.” Crow still has a fantastic voice and is easy on the eyes. Margo Price returned to the stage and they turned “Strong Enough” into a nice duet. After “If It Makes You Happy” Crow said, “I have so many friend here, it would be silly if I didn’t bring some out. I’m gonna bring out Lukas Nelson, and let’s bring out Lukas’ dad.” When Willie Nelson took the stage and brought out his guitar “Trigger,” the place erupted! Also joining Crow were Jack Johnson and Margo Price. They decided to pay tribute to Gregg Allman by playing “Midnight Rider.” It was the defining moment of the show. It raised the hair on my arms when Willie sang the line “They’re not gonna catch me no, not gonna catch the midnight rider.” Not to get into the realm of hyperbole, but it was one of the best concert moments that I've ever witnessed.
Farm Aid board member Dave Matthews took the stage along with guitarist Tim Reynolds to play an inspired acoustic set. Opening with some fancy guitar work, the duo went into “Don’t Drink The Water” and segued into “Satellite.” Dave and Tim really play well together and the guys got things rocking with a great version of “What Would You Say.” They finished up their seven song set with “Warehouse” and “Crush.”
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp was next to perform. Fresh off his successful Sad Clowns and Hillbillies Tour, Mellencamp and his band sounded fantastic. Opening the show with “Lawless Times” the band hit this home-grown crowd with the anthem “Small Town” for their second song. Mellencamp stated that they would be playing “some songs you know and some songs you don’t know.” His cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passway” and his most recent single “Easy Target” might have been songs the audience didn’t know. However, every other song he played in his nine song set got people up on their feet and dancing. A great acoustic version of “Jack and Diane” became a massive sing-along, even though the audience messed up the second verse. The apropos “Rain On The Scarecrow” made its way into the set and Mellencamp closed the party with “Crumblin’ Down” and “Pink Houses.”
Ain’t that America indeed.
Making his first live appearance of 2017, Neil Young + Promise of the Real was the most anticipated act of the day. With Neil Young you never know what you’re gonna get. Will he play his grungy stuff or will he play his acoustic stuff? Just to be sure, the stage was littered with various guitars and even a pump organ was brought out just in case Young wanted to wander over and give it a whirl.
These questions were quickly answered when the opening chords of “Fuckin’ Up” were played on Young’s classic black Les Paul. The first three songs in the set were from Young’s electric band Crazy Horse and the crowd responded enthusiastically. A phenomenal version of “Cortez The Killer” and “Cinnamon Girl” got the crowd on their feet.
Young switched things up as an acoustic guitar and harmonica were brought out for him to play “Human Highway,” the classic “Heart of Gold,” and “Comes A Time.”
Things went electric again as the band powered through “Like A Hurricane” and the set closing “Rockin’ In The Free World.”
It was a great performance by a legendary artist.
Finally, the headliner and president of Farm Aid Willie Nelson and his friends took the stage to close this incredible day of music. His eleven-song set featured such classics as “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” and of course “On The Road Again.” A few cover tunes were thrown in for good measure as well: Toby Keith’s “Beer For My Horses,” Waylon Jennings “Good Hearted Woman,” and Hank Williams “I Saw The Light” all made the setlist.
It was an incredible day of food, farming and music.
Here’s to Farm Aid 2018!
Review and photos by Greg Drugan
This review first appeared in NEO Music Scene