Just wow. Take in the stage at this moment and realize how surreal it is. There is Neil Young, Willie Nelson, and John Mellencamp all together on one stage. And amongst them, Jamey Johnson and his non-brother Jack Johnson, Sheryl Crow, Nathaniel Rateliffe, Margo Price, Lukas Nelson, and Valerie June and some other soon to be household names. The press conference pre-show was enough to get any music enthusiast running like a Mopar engine. But it was also an excellent reminder of what the day was really about, who the true stars and heroes were: The Farmers. Local farmers from the Pittsburgh area were also invited to speak and the Farm Aid organization made some short documentary-style film pieces to explain what their daily lives are like. Let’s just say ‘it ain’t easy’. It put a whole lot of perspective on the day and the true reason why it was important that the music heroes were putting this all together, on their own dime and without profiting from any merch sales.
All photos © 2017 AWeldingphoto
The traditional send-off was a prayer with Willie Nelson and representatives of the Native American community, and then it was truly down to business once the Blackwood Quartet started to their synchronized crooning. The true rocking got going once the highly experimental psych-rock Insects vs Robots out of Venice, CA took the stage. The band includes Micah Nelson, son of Willie. The sound comes off more Neil Young than Willie Nelson though and they put on a tremendous eclectic performance. Of special note were the massive LED screens set up throughout Key Bank Pavillion, incredible not only in their detail but technology. The stage background was LED as well and included an ingenious separation that allowed a quick load in and off of equipment between bands. The sound was excellent and for the most part, the sets ran like clockwork.
Valerie June is best described as a blend of folk, blues, gospel, soul, country, and Appalachian bluegrass. It’s not something one may expect if judging by appearance, she’s a naturally beautiful African American woman with dreds like Lenny Kravitz once had. Blessed with a killer voice and being able to play multiple instruments definitely makes her a multi-faceted threat. Her performance was clean crisp and a great invitation to her style of music.
Lukas Nelson (also a son of Willie) and his band Promise of the Real are so good they are also Neil Young’s backing band. They have a chill rock sound with a country basis a la The Allman Band. Blackberry Smoke put a lot more of the rock into their country-tinged sound that takes its influence from The Stones, Aerosmith, and of course Skynard.
The more well-known acts then started to fill in along with the crowd. Jamey Johnson started revving up the fans with his country music stylings. Jamey is a very accomplished having contributed songs to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Trace Adkins, George Strait, James Otto, Joe Nichols and Jessie James Decker. The signatures on his acoustic guitar reveal a lot about who he has worked with, even the very visible Kris Kristofferson signature. He played some great cover songs including The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” Don Williams’ “Some Tears Will Never Mend,” Little Feat’s “Willin’,” Jerry Reed’s “Eastbound and Down” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Next up was alt-country newcomer Margo Price out of Nashville. Price’s music is also very country based, but not as much as some of her alt-country peers, more along the lines of June Carter with a modern twist.
Around 4PM things started to definitely kick up a notch with Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats, most well known for the hit “S.O.B.” Their set had a ton of gusto and movement creating a dynamic experience that matched well with the exciting Avett Brothers who went on after Rateliff. The Avett Bros. are no strangers to Pittsburgh and put on a foot-stomping ho-down of folk-rock that was definitely one of the more “fun” sets of the day including Laundry Room,” “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” and “Talk on Indolence.”. But, Jack Johnson and his ability to get many of the acts such as Sheryl Crow, Jamey Johnson, and Nathaniel Rateliff to jam with him to play Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” made the set amazing to witness. He also got The Avett Brothers to play with him and an improvised guitar accompaniment by Lukas Nelson that Johnson described as “that’s beautiful”. Probably the most laid back and hilarious songs of the day had to be Jack’s backstage Farm Aid written a tune, “Willie Got Me Stoned and Took All My Money.”
When Sheryl Crow was done with a few of her hits (Every Day is a Winding Road” “My Favorite Mistake”), she also got some of the other band members to come up, most notably Willie, the man himself. The 23K plus attendees went nuts as “Pops” strapped on an acoustic that has witnessed many miles and many stories. To see Willie Nelson pay tribute to Gregg Allman on “Midnight Rider” with Crow, his son Lukas, and Jack Johnson was a beautiful moment.
Dave Matthews did a forceful acoustic performance with Tim Reynolds that was powerful and passionate as he played “Don’t Drink the Water,”“Satellite” and “Mercy” as well as“What Would You Say.” He also did an unreleased tune called “Odds Are Against Us” which he did with a bit of trepidation. The set was intense and a clinic in how two acoustic guitars can blow away a full band at times.
John Mellencamp, a Farm Aid founder, brought a backing band that was dynamic and showed why the top acts have the ability to stay in the spot for decades. Opening with “Lawless Times,” and transitioning to big hit “Small Town”, Mellencamp had a nice mix of the old and new with a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway,” “Check it Out,” “Pink Houses,”and an acoustic singalong to “Jack and Diane”, a song he said of, “I don’t even know why I play this song, I only play this song ’cause I know you guys want to hear it.” He then told of writing the song as a young man as he was “working” on something in one room and writing the song in the other, accomplishing both goals by the wee hours of the morning. His “Rain on the Scarecrow” will forever be a defining moment for Farm Aid history, telling the tale of the plight that the American Farmer had back in the 80’s.
Neil Young came out meaning business with “F*!#in’ Up” (frequently covered by Pearl Jam) and wailing on his classic Gibson “Old Black” and doing his giant walk to Lukas Nelson and his backing band POTR. The super long guitar jam of “Cortez the Killer” was blistering only to go into the ultra-fave “Cinnamon Girl”. Young paused to thank the everyone for coming to Farm Aid and strongly noted, “Farmers are the American heroes today. They’re living a real life.” Going into acoustic mode Young put on the famous harmonica and jammed out “Human Highway,” “Heart of Gold”, “Comes A Time” and fan faves “Like a Hurricane” and “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Much of the crowd talked about the set is one of the best Young had ever done at any Farm Aid.
Willie Nelson and The Family went on to close out the night. Along with some of his family members, they performed “Whiskey River”,“Still is Still Moving to Me,” “Beer for My Horses” and “Good Hearted Woman” (”one for Waylon,” he said). Jamey Johnson accompanied Willie and took the Merle Haggard part on “It’s All Going to Pot.” Sheryl Crow, Valerie June and the Avetts came out to participate on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away,” and son Lukas just crushed the guitar on “Texas Flood.” It was a day and evening for the record books. Hopefully, it won’t take Farm Aid another 15 years to return.