Farm Aid :: 09.18.04 :: White River Amphitheater :: Auburn, WA

Recently I was surprised when a friend invited me to Farm Aid; all I could envision was sitting in my parent's basement long ago watching these concerts on MTV. But I hadn't realized the organization is still going strong, growing and flourishing over the last 19 years. And why shouldn't it? There are the artists, rich in talent and conscience; there's a tremendous support web made up of activists, volunteers, and fans; and there are of course the farmers who, due to an increasing number of political reasons, need the assistance of such an organization just to survive.

Farm Aid Founders
(l to r) Nelson, Young, Mellencamp
Founded in 1985 by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young, Farm Aid raises millions of dollars each year for America's farmers and farming communities. The goals and message are simple: when consumers directly support small farms, communities are better able to take ownership and responsibility for the land, gaining greater access to high quality locally grown meats, dairy, and produce. Thinking not only of the present, but the future, Farm Aid challenges people to look at alternative forms of energy as well. It's all part of a big picture that many Americans take for granted. Farm Aid encourages one to question the systems that have been put into place--Why are we eating sub-par food grown outside the country instead of investing money into American farms? What can we do to alleviate our nation's dependence on oil and gasoline?

Farm Aid 2004
Playing to a sold-out crowd under the rain shadow of Mt. Rainier, these topics were addressed between acts and songs at the 19th annual Farm Aid concert at the White River Amphitheater, about 30 miles outside of Seattle. The all-day extravaganza got going in mid-afternoon and by the time we rolled into the venue it was teeming with Gore-Tex clad Pacific Northwesterners. Even the folks seated on the wet grassy slope looked excited, peering over the fence like a bunch of kids in the first roller coaster car. Farm Aid's first ever West Coast show sold out quickly and so another first, a $10 live web-cast, was announced. The one-day event was sponsored by Silk soymilk and raised over a million dollars (and counting) for family farms.

Starting with lesser-known acts and moving up the food chain, each artist appeared to champion a cause. The importance of family, awareness of renewable resources, and talk of farming dotted artists' sets. A solid mix of families, young adults, and baby boomers comprised the crowd and so I was surprised to discover that there would be no standing, no movement really. An evening of shoulder dancing beckoned.

Steve Earle by Glen Rose
Sitting on the edge of his stool, centered in the farmland-themed gaping maw which was the stage, a solo Steve Earle opened with a jaunty "Copperhead Road." At ease with the crowd, he joked that critics always ask if certain songs have political undertones, confirming that indeed they do. The next was about gun control. He talked about the fairness of the war in Iraq, of wars in general, and the dissemination of information, stating that ultimately "all wars are fought for money." Trading his guitar for a mandolin, stomping his boot, Earl played a jiggy tune, "Goin' Down to Dixieland." Eliciting cheers from the enraptured crowd, he continued to talk about the war and the reinstatement of the draft. "My boys are 17 and 22, and I think we need to have this discussion," he swallowed as a concerned, urgent afterthought. Closing with a tune I didn't know, I was galvanized by the line, "Another poor boy off to fight a rich man's war." Not just an artist, but a worried father, Steve Earle made the hairs on my arms rise and I wish he had played longer.

Next up was Jerry Lee Lewis of "Great Balls of Fire" fame. He had a small band who accompanied him in one of the shortest sets of the evening--two tunes. The aforementioned "Great Balls" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" comprised the set. As an artist his talent is undeniable, mixing rock and country better and for longer than many artists, there's no doubt Lewis appealed to a certain demographic in the crowd, but I must say that at Farm Aid, he seemed a bit out of place. But seeing the "Killer" play was fun and the full contact piano playing was so feverish, it bordered on a spiritual performance.

Dave Mathews
Dave Matthews played next, just him and his guitar. It was clear that many of the fans had come just for this act as they stood and cheered singing along. One formidably girthy, positively militant woman several seats away directed her screeching at them. Geez lady, it doesn't sound any worse with them standing. Opening with "So Damned Lucky," he interspersed his set with stories of his daughters, alluding to the importance of family. He related several comical whiskey-induced quips, punctuating lines and thoughts with his willful eyebrows, which seem to move independently of one another. The set traversed nine old and new tunes--a frisky rendition of the "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" met with "Oh," and "#41." Matthews welcomed a harmonica player for a cover of Bob Dylan's "Oh Sister," then closed the set with the meditative "Gravedigger." Having never seen the man perform, I was impressed with his easygoing stage presence and his humble attitude. "I'm a little nervous," he explained. This seemed in stark contrast to the next performer, a cocky John Mellencamp.

John Mellencamp
It was a solid set from a pretty middle-of-the-road artist. Mellencamp's pared down supporting band added depth and new intrigue to songs we've all heard, such as "Little Pink Houses" and "Paper and Fire." Opening with a take on the traditional "In My Time of Dying," the band moved on to "Rain on the Scarecrow" and then a new tune, "Walk Tall" off Mellencamp's upcoming greatest hits release (due in October). His competent band was comprised of a ripping violin player, guitarist, bassist and accordion player. The violinist at times played in conjunction with the bass for an almost mournful effect, while the accordion lent an Appalachian vibe. Songs about the earth seemed more authentic and certainly had that middle-America feel. Mellencamp played guitar on several tunes, flanked by his band, and also got up to shimmy across the stage for the crowd. Unimpressive was Mellencamp, in the middle of a 30-minute set, indulging in a cigarette and then wharfing up a loogie on the stage--yuck. Nevertheless, he wrapped up by championing the plight of farmers as he, a founding member of Farm Aid and a product of America's heartland, always has.

Neil Young by Mark Seliger
Damp and rustling with every move, we made our way back to the seats after a foray to get a warm beverage. Next up was Neil Young, who I was most excited about. Young's voice was deceptively frail and willowy, his delivery of lyrics seemingly uncomfortable yet emotionally cathartic. He sat surrounded in a stand of five or six acoustic guitars, occasionally retreating to a baby grand piano upstage. Opening with "Pocahontas" followed by the skeletal grace of "Harvest Moon," Young's set was part music and part discussion of political ideas. He more than suggested that industrialization is not always synonymous with progress, and that we are each able to change the world simply by changing some habits. For those of us who are hip to Farmer's Markets or the notion of "think globally, act locally," this was positive reinforcement, but I could hear interest in this bottom-up approach was taking hold of others in section 211. Young followed with "Cowgirl in the Sand" and "Don't Let It Bring You Down," later welcoming his vocalist wife Peggy to join him on several tunes. More thoughts on renewable resources preceded "Old King," a song about "good dogs," before closing with "Four Strong Winds." This was the moment I realized I was glad to have a freakin' colossal video screen hovering to my left; the ability to really see Young's eyes as he sang and his fingers as he played a beautiful set was enough for me.

Willie Nelson
Last up was Willie Nelson and his band, which was mainly comprised of Nelson's own family and old friends. By this time Farm Aid was into its eighth hour, it was getting cold, and no amount of layering or hot chocolate was going to change that. I hunkered down for this last set and was treated to trademarks "Whiskey River," "Promise Land," "Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys," "Poncho and Lefty," "On the Road Again," and "I'll Fly Away." Several guests were brought out for duets: Kate Voegele on "Crazy" and buddies the Calhoun Brothers for "Okee from Muskogee." Nelson encouraged other players to take the spotlight, encouraged perhaps by his recently operated-upon hand or maybe he was just worn out like the rest of us. Willie's unique playing and vocal phrasing, always a little ahead or behind the beat, made a big show feel more authentic. Although he played virtually the same set as the previous night, right down to calling out "play it again little sister" to the pianist (who was indeed his sister), the set was a wonderful end to Farm Aid.

The whole event was well produced and executed, no small feat for so many artists and multimedia trickery. But Farm Aid felt a bit telethon-y--the testimonial videos, the thanking of sponsors, the acceptance of a very big check. Save for a couple artists, the concert felt more of an act or production than a show, the difference being artists communicating with the audience and to the crowd, but that's the nature of a fundraiser. I had hoped for a big all-star jam at the end, but was satiated by the whole cast singing "Amazing Grace." Despite my misgivings, the message remains the same: small farms and the environment need our help and it isn't that difficult to give it. It would be wonderful if our farmers didn't need Farm Aid, but until that's the case, it's fabulous that these artists continue to spearhead the cause.

Court Scott
JamBase | Seattle
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[Published on: 10/5/04]

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