Virginia Is For Farmers: Farm Aid 2016 – Review, Photos & Videos

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Words & Images by: Stu Kelly

Farm Aid :: 09.17.16 :: Jiffy Lube Live :: Bristow, VA

View Stu’s photo gallery after his review.

“I’ve been doing this for many years, but I haven’t been this moved by this event in a long time,” said John Mellencamp as he addressed the media after listening to several farmers tell their own personal stories before doors opened early on Saturday morning. Mellencamp’s emotional testimony became a reoccurring theme for everyone involved in the 31st annual Farm Aid in Bristow, Virginia as there was a cohesive stream of consciousness throughout the day of the importance of the American farmer.

Farm Aid was founded in 1985 by current board members Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young as a method to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and help raise money to keep farming families on their land. In 2001 Dave Matthews joined the board of directors and together the four music icons have helped Farm Aid raise more than $50 million for American farmers. Farm Aid’s message is direct: promote family farms by creating new markets for them to thrive in as well as by taking action to change the system and promote fair farm policies that defend and bolster family-farm-centered agriculture. In a world where Monsanto and Bayer recently agreed to a $66 billion merger, creating the world’s largest agrichemical company, the messages and advocacy of Farm Aid has never been more important.

[Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – S.O.B. > Shape I’m In]

As the day unfolded there were a lot of moving parts outside of an incredible lineup of diverse musicians. Farm Aid brings together a strong community with a desire to give back and educate people on not only how to help the American farmer, but also how to make small changes to better their own lives. As the Jiffy Lube Live gates opened there was immediately a seed share that took place in the Homegrown Village which drew a large crowd. The Homegrown Skills tent educated people on topics such as how to compost food scraps and use the final product for gardening, how to make and use digestive bitters, how the central Appalachian economy is transitioning to be more resilient and how to transform hemp stalks into paper. Throughout the day various educational seminars were held in the Homegrown Village, some of which featured musicians such as Jamey Johnson and Nathaniel Rateliff speaking as well. During one of the seminars on the importance of local food, Johnson had a great response as to why he’s been so involved with Farm Aid for so long (nine straight years).

“Imagine you’re getting ready to sit down with your family for Thanksgiving,” said Johnson as he addressed a crowd gathered at the FarmYard stage. “You get your plate all set up with all of your fixings and right before you sit down to eat, someone comes along and sprays it down with Raid. Now I reckon you’re going to get up and get yourself another plate. I know people who want you to have the best food you can get and that’s why this is so important.”

The festivities began on the main stage with Star Swain singing the National Anthem and a performance from the Wisdom Indian Dancers before Ian Mellencamp (John Mellencamp’s nephew) kicked things off just before 1 p.m. Mellencamp opened up with a cover of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” before blending his own originals into the mix. One of the most pleasant early surprises in the day came when Insects vs. Robots took the stage and delivered a compelling set full of their signature psychedelic sound. The band’s style easily blends over a multitude of genres and the band self-proclaims themselves as a “psychedelic orchestra.”

The energy was kicked up a notch when Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real hit the main stage serving up some gritty Southern rock ‘n’ roll which was met by an exultant response from the crowd. Margo Price kept the crowd invested with her emotional performance as she noted her own personal experiences when her family lost their farm in 1985, the same year Farm Aid originated. Price played two numbers which were inspired by those events, “Heart Of America” and “Hands Of Time.”

[Jamey Johnson & Alison Krauss]

Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss hit the main stage just after 3 p.m. and played a variety of covers by artists such as Waylon Jennings (“I Ain’t the One” and “You Ask Me To”), Hank Cochran (“Make The World Go Away”), Larry Sparks (“John Deere Tractor”), The Carter Family (“My Dixie Darling”), Merle Haggard (“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink”) and Don Williams (“Tulsa Time”). The dynamic duo also dipped into Alison’s repertoire and played a beautiful version of “Ghost In This House” before Johnson’s staple “In Color.” The highlight of this set came when the two performed a stripped down version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” which fully embodied the theme of Farm Aid.

The energy was starting to feel more electric from the audience and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats took this momentum in stride for the duration of their set. Rateliff, a native of Missouri, exploded on stage with a deep and organic blend of soulfulness as he played some of his most recognizable hits such as “Wasting Time,” “Howling At Nothing” and his most notable song “S.O.B.” which segued beautifully into The Band’s “The Shape I’m In” to close out his set. Rateliff is one of those artists that you don’t simply listen to – you experience. His onstage persona was buttoned up and full of energy and he delivered an absolutely incredible performance.

[Sturgill Simpson – Keep It Between The Lines]

Sturgill Simpson was a great addition to Farm Aid as he’s been a rapidly ascending country star for years now. Celebrating the success of his most recent album release, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, Simpson opened up with two numbers from that record “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” and “Keep It Between The Lines.” Simpson went on to honor Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson when he covered “I’d Have To Be Crazy” toward the end of his set.

Alabama Shakes performed at Farm Aid for the first time in their career this year and they absolutely crushed their allotted 45 minute set. Brittany Howard and the band played a diverse set which blended songs from both of their studio albums, including “Hang Loose,” “Heartbreaker,” and “You Ain’t Alone” from Boys & Girls and “Don’t Wanna Fight,” “Dunes,” “Future People,” “Gimme All Your Love,” “Joe,” “Miss You” and the self-titled track from Sound & Color. Alabama Shakes are a breath of fresh air as they radiate sheer power incorporated into their genre-bending sound of blues and soul. Howard’s voice has an astounding range as it carries the rest of the band’s already thick and rich sound to new heights.

[Alabama Shakes – Heartbreaker]

The largest crowd to that point of the day gathered for Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds as you could feel the anticipation mount in the air. For the die-hard fans of Dave Matthews Band this was a rare opportunity to see the Virginia native solo. When Dave last played Jiffy Lube Live in May with the DMB, the show went on to be one of the worst of his entire summer tour – based on song selection, rarities and execution – so hardcore fans were excited to see their idol once more in 2016. Dave and Tim opened up with “Don’t Drink the Water,” which included a brief Woody Guthrie “This Land Is Your Land” interlude. Dave and Tim weren’t shy about playing the hits as they executed “Grey Street” which found its way into “Crash Into Me” before the duo focused on one of Dave’s new numbers, “Samurai Cop.” The crowd favorite “Crush” surfaced next and managed to hit monumental peaks despite being stripped down in an acoustic setting. Reynolds fired off a series of rapid solos as this version clocked in at just less than eight minutes. The duo opted to dip into their recent repertoire again with “Bismarck” before an absolutely beautiful version of “Two Step” complete with a “Time Bomb” intro with Dave singing the chorus of “Time Bomb” over the chords of “Two Step.” This vibrant version of “Two Step” could have easily left the crowd content and closed the set but Dave and Tim found time for “Ants Marching” which ignited a singalong with the crowd. It’s amazing to see how two men armed with acoustic guitars can command a crowd of 20,000 people in an amphitheater.

[Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds – Two Step]

Farm Aid board member John Mellencamp took the stage after Dave & Tim and kept the momentum in full swing. When Mellencamp got involved in the inaugural Farm Aid in 1985 he had no idea it would blossom and grow to the level it is today. Mellencamp’s set was a throwback to his ‘80s hits such as “Pink Houses,” “Paper In Fire” and “Check It Out.” While Mellencamp has performed predictable set lists in recent years he proved he can deliver a great set and not be chained to his most notorious song “Jack & Diane” (which he didn’t play this year).

When Neil Young took the stage solo with his acoustic guitar and harmonica it was almost as if time stood still. Once the opening chords to “Heart Of Gold” came through the PA it felt like the air was sucked out of the venue as the audience was in complete awe of the song’s beauty. Young took this in stride as he went into “Out On The Weekend” > “Human Highway” > “Harvest Moon.” Neil wasted no time expressing the importance of this event when he addressed the crowd.

“There’s a revolution starting,” the veteran rocker said.“It’s called eating good food that your neighbors made for you. Let the earth bring us all together, back to the roots! Eat good food. You don’t need drugs anymore. It took us a long time to get this far and we have a long way to go. But with people like you, we’re going to make it!” In that moment a fan in the front row held up a t-shirt that drew Young’s attention, exclaiming “Hey, I like that shirt! Fuck Monsanto!” Neil welcomed Willie Nelson to the stage for a cover of Nelson’s “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?” Young shifted gears as he switched out for his beloved electric guitar Old Black for a take on Crazy Horse’s “Powderfinger” before an electrifying version of “Rockin’ In The Free World,” which featured three reprises whiplashing the crowd into a dancing frenzy.

[Neil Young & Promise Of The Real w/ Willie Nelson – Are There Any More Real Cowboys?]

It would be tough for anybody to follow Neil Young but Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson has held down the closing spot since the first benefit concert. Nelson, who is 83 years old, battling emphysema and smokes weed daily still manages to hold down a beautiful singing voice in a live atmosphere. Nelson worked in a total of 15 songs in his set, by far the most of any performer that day. Willie opened up with “Whiskey River” / “Still I Still Movin to Me” before taking a swing at Toby Keith cover “Beer For My Horses” and the notorious Waylon Jennings cover “Good Hearted Woman.” Willie worked his originals into his set, which included “On the Road Again,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “Bloody Mary Morning” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” Hank Williams’ material also found its way into Willie’s set when he covered “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” and “I Saw the Light” which were both met with a positive response from the crowd of country music lovers. Other notable covers that Willie played were “Georgia On My Mind” (Hoagy Carmichael) and “Amazing Grace” which featured Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss and Dave Matthews on stage for part of the grand finale.

[Grand Finale]

The 31st Farm Aid boasted a full day of musical highlights, educational seminars, some of the most delicious organically farmed fruit I’ve ever tasted and plenty of love from the fans. While the music is over, the messages of protecting family farmers should be preserved forever. There’s no word yet on where the 32nd Farm Aid will be held but one thing we can be sure of is that Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Willie Nelson will come together again and dedicate their efforts to educating people on the importance of the American family farmer and all of the traditions that come with dedicating your life to standing up against corporate America.

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