Farm Aid, the annual concert founded by Willie Nelson in 1985 to focus on family farms in America, made its first ever stop at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on September 21st with nearly 20 musical acts and countless educational activities and farm-centric events that made Farm Aid stand out as the premiere musical event in Upstate New York as the summer drew to a close. But Farm Aid is FAR MORE than just a concert with tons of great acts – Dave Matthews, Neil Young and John Mellencamp among the headliners – it is a political movement for all to take part in, pushing the cause of the environment and growing the local farm movement, one that benefits everyone without having to take a side on the left or right.
Food is a universal need. Healthy food, even more so these days. Keeping in mind the ‘Act Local, Think Global’ mantra, Farm Aid is truly an educational event as much as it is musical, and when these are coupled together, the impact can be profound and lasting. Whether it was an informative diorama of how Sustainable Farming works (and quite efficiently I might add), the best seeds to use (non-Monsanto/GMO) or a look at the latest Farm Bill (which passed the House but cut Food Stamps and assistance for the poor), there was something to be learned throughout the array of tents and exhibitions near The Hall of Springs.
The crowd this day was bigger than any I had ever seen at SPAC – a sold out crowd plus a lawn chair for everyone sitting on the infamous SPAC lawn left little room for fans to dance, but for a 12-hour concert, you needed to pace yourself and sit while you had the opportunity. Fans sat far back towards The Hall of Springs, where speakers and monitors were set up so those set far back in the sprawled out crowd could enjoy the concert, regardless of distance from the stage. A crowd filled with older music lovers, local farmers, fans who traveled across the country for what seemed for some to be a yearly pilgrimage, as well as curious first timers and Rock n Roll fans comprised the crowd of more than 25,000. It was a festival-like atmosphere with 12 hours of music, a packed crowd and a wide array of food to sample; there was even a healthy amount of rain in the evening to give that almost-a-festival feeling, just without the camping option.
As for the music, there was plenty to be had for fans of folk and rock, but this was far from a ‘something for everybody’ lineup. No hip-hop, EDM, jambands or the like. This was a concert of true American Rock n Roll: folk music on a rock level that was inspirational, but veered away from preachy (except for Neil Young, but more on him later). It was also a family affair, with Lukas Nelson (Willie’s son) and Carlene Carter (June’s daughter) bringing a generational aspect to an event that has spanned 28 years, roughly a generation itself. Carlene Carter performed a stirring rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” as the daylight shone down through the windows inside the SPAC pavilion to create a cathedral inside the amphitheater. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real performed a solid set and kept the Nelson family name proud; Lukas later sat in with Willie on a cover of Eddie Vedder’s “Just Breathe.”
Toad the Wet Sprocket, a blast from the past of the 90’s, performed in support of their new album New Constellation and performed hits including “Walk on the Ocean” and “All I Want”. Prior to their set, bassist Dean Dinning and guitarist/singer Glen Phillips sat down backstage to talk about Farm Aid, their new album and indie rock bands. Look for ‘s review of their new album next week. Jack Johnson played “Radiate” from his new album From Here to Now to You, as well as “Flake”, an interesting take on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and Jimi Hendrix’ “Crosstown Traffic”, all of which swayed the lawn as the sun shone its brightest of the day, giving the crowd one last glimpse of warmth before the cool autumn night set in.
Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds gave every bro in the crowd something to cheer for, sing along to and yell the lyrics to anyone within earshot. It was an intimate performance and Dave continued to shower accolades on the venue – he loves SPAC in every way, shape and form. Having performed at the venue seemingly every year for the past 10 years, if not more, sitting on the familiar stage next to his old friend was a treat for him. The audience was treated in return with “Save Me”, “So Damn Lucky”, “Grace is Gone”, “Cornbread”, “If Only”, “#41” (something for fans of Under the Table and Dreaming) and “Two Step”. Just as Dave’s set ended, the rain began to fall, leading the first wave of fans to leave the show, but many stalwarts, especially the Neil Young and Willie Nelson fans, dug in their heels and prepared for the next three hours.
Prior to the Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Willie Nelson performances, videos looking at the historical impact of these artists, their relationship with Farm Aid and connection through music were broadcast on the main screen, in a style akin to the videos of Presidential candidates shown at Party Conventions prior to accepting the nomination. They showcased the cause, the artist and the music, all at once, and served to hype the crowd up and welcome each musician to the stage in grand fashion. They aren’t just performing for free, they are also doing their part to speak freely about the importance of farming and local farmers, as well as attach their name to a cause, something more artists should do, for if you aren’t using your fame to benefit others, what’s the point of fame?
Mellencamp’s set featured a look back at his heyday of the 1980s, complete with “Check it Out”, “Small Town”, an acoustic solo performance of “Jack and Diane”, complete with crowd participation on the lyrics, especially ‘Hold onto 16 as long as you can.” There was a wonderful duet with violinist/accordionist Lisa Germano that resembled “Walk me Out in the Morning Dew”, followed by “Scarecrow” and “Walls”. It was good to see Mellencamp playing with the same drive as he had in the 80’s and 90’s, and he provided a segue into the biggest surprise of the night – Upstate New York’s greatest living musical legend, Pete Seeger.
A surprise for everyone, even the media who learned of his appearance not 30 minutes prior, Pete came to the stage with his banjo swinging across his 6’4″, 94 year old frame, soaked in a small amount of cheers from the crowd before beginning his original “If I Had a Hammer”, encouraging the crowd, saying “Here’s a song I think you know, and if you sing it, why, we’ll make a good sound.” The crowd sang along, many in awe that he was there standing on stage alone before a crowd, not six months after his wife of more than 70 years, Toshi, passed away.
Having played with Woody Guthrie in the 1940s, Seeger has carried on his legacy of songs of freedom, making “This Land is Your Land” his most frequently performed number. Included in this version was the rarely sung “private property” verse, as well as a new verse:
New York is my home, New York is your home. From the Upstate mountains to the ocean foam.
With all kinds of people, yes, we’re poly-grown (sic), New York was meant to be frack-free.
“This Land is Your Land” makes a good argument to be a second national anthem with its inspirational ‘we’re in this together’ message, and with an anti-fracking line, one that is uniting New Yorkers in greater numbers in recent years, the song had greater meaning for those in attendance, leading to a raucous cheer from the audience. It was at Farm Aid, and at recent rallies around the state, particularly at the state Capitol in Albany, where the anti-fracking movement has found a wider audience, as the issue hits closer to home and gained more media attention in the process.
Neil Young started his set with Bob Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind”, “Early Morning Rain” and “Old Man”, before taking some liberty and speaking off the cuff about Farm Aid and its mission – but not in the “We love the farmers, let’s hear it for them” style. Rather, Neil took issue with climate change, Monsanto, fossil fuel polluters and for a few minutes, he was yelling at them to get off our collective lawns. Angry Neil was not on anyone’s setlist expectations, but the response from the crowd was focused attention, hearing what they didn’t want to hear, and taking the bad with the good. Neil followed with “Heart of Gold”, “Since I Met ya Baby” and Phil Ochs’ “Changes”, referencing once again the impending climate change already upon us.
Closing out the night was Willie Nelson, fresh off a sesh on his bus and ready to bring this show home. In less than an hour, Willie cranked out 15 songs and brought everyone up for one final sendoff of an encore. Classic hits Willie performed with his band included “Whiskey River”, “Will You Remember Mine”, Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman”, “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys’, “Crazy”, “Georgia on a Fast Train” and Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans”. The hilarious, and aptly titled “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” had the crowd laughing and singing along, but seriously, when Willie passes away, these are our instructions. Take note.
The final tune of the night was “I Saw the Light”, bringing everyone onto the stage for one last tune, sending out the crowd into the rainy night. Leaving was bittersweet after a full day of music, education, good food and great camaraderie with fellow Farm Aid supporters. SPAC was an ideal setting for this traveling event, and while it will not be in the Upstate neck of the woods for a few years, it is by far an event to seek out whenever it is within a short drive of your hometown.