Farm Aid’s first appearance in New England was met with perfect conditions for a festival about the outdoors, sunny but cool, making the generally shitty Comcast Center (formerly Tweeter) feel a little more down-home. Local farmers dotted the walkways and open spaces, teaching people to grind corn, plant seedlings and ride tractors, all the while shilling their locally-grown food. The typical concert food scene had been revamped to offer exclusively local, organic foods to festival-goers. Instead of hot dogs, fresh peaches; instead of fries, corn on the cob. Having given up on humanity to buy local foods because it’s the right thing to do, Farm Aid’s trying to entice people to do so because the food tastes better. And booths and stands were all packed with the knowledgeable and naïve alike, so maybe Farm Aid did make some think a little more about the little guy.
Where everyone found the time to visit all these stands would be a good question though, as the day’s nineteen bands were packed in at a relentless pace. Packed in so tightly, in fact, that most groups had 8-15 minutes. A far cry from Bonnaroo, where even the most obscure group gets a 65 minute set. Hell, the headliners here only got 45. Farm Aid clearly needed a second stage, and one wonders why the opportunity to play two or three songs is even worth the effort for the bands.
Two is how many we got from a personal favorite, The Elms. Well-chosen though, “Nothing to Do With Love” kicked things off in high gear, the Indiana foursome (from Mellencamp’s hometown) hard rocking around the stage, unafraid to indulge in the rock’n’roll excesses with big drums and bigger guitar solos. Like Springsteen meets Zeppelin, they’re securing a place in the rock revival helmed by The Hold Steady and, more recently, The Gaslight Anthem. “Bring Me Your Tea” followed, marking them as a group to watch.
Nashville trio One Flew South followed, their beautiful three-part harmonies needing only the most basic acoustic strumming to propel them along. Though they recalled classic harmony groups like Crosby, Stills and Nash and the Beach Boys, One Flew South added a strong gospel flavor to their country tunes about whiskey and crying. Though songs with titles like “My Kind of Beautiful” are not very lyrically impressive, the message is not in the words but the sounds, their voices meshing perfectly to wash over the small crowd.
Though popular in the jam scene, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals offers much more than mindless noodling and ambient experimentation (scroll down to moe. for that). Though they only did one song, their energy and experimentation made the fifteen minutes of “Nothing But the Water” fly by. Potter started it off a cappela with a gospel holler, her banging tambourine keeping the beat. The band came in after a few minutes when Potter switched to swirling organ, but all instruments were soon again abandoned for a gathering around the drum set. Like a hippie drum circle, but with talent, all four whaled on the kit for quite a while before they brought it back to the song. A thumping four-man solo, the drum jam got the small and hot crowd really into it for the first time that day. A little more of the whole “playing instruments” things happened before the band ditched them yet again to line up at the edge of the stage for some audience clap and stomp along. Though the song was certainly jam-length, the soul swagger kept the faux-medley together, separating of them from the legions of aimless Grateful Dead knock-offs whose association does the Nocturnals a disservice.
The flipside of the jam coin was provided by moe., a band so unexciting they can’t even muster a capital letter for their name. Their cult following showed up in the crowd, a select few going nuts while the rest of us tried not to nod off as them grooved endlessly.
Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody, came out to continue his family affair with his son Abe on keys and grandson on drums. “Alabama Bound” kicked things off, a strange choice for a state that would have had more empathy with ‘The Hamptons Bound.” “City of New Orleans” got big cheers however, though with the absence of Gordon Titcomb on pedal steel the piano arrangement felt a little stilted, like “The Long and Winding Road” without the strings. Guthrie’s nasal singing sounded a parody of itself, but he was clearly having so much fun onstage a grating delivery could be forgiven. An early high point for the crowd came with his humorous satire of big corporations, “I’m Changing My Name to Chrysler.” This time, though, it was a little different: “I’m changing my name to Fannie Mae / I’m going down to Washington DC / I’ll be glad they got my back – It’s what they did for Freddie Mac! / It’ll be perfectly acceptable to me.” The crowd was in stitches, but it might be time to update the update a little more.
Though I’d never heard of Jamey Johnson, the program billed him as an upcoming singer-songwriter blazing his own trail, yadda yadda yadda. Turns out he’s pretty generic, a county bad boy in the vein of Merle Haggard, songs mostly about pot and Jesus. His deep Nashville baritone was pleasant, but coupled with the acoustic guitars and pedal steel it became a little too “Gone Country.”
An actual country rebel, Steve Earle endeared himself to the crown by pointing that he had only missed a couple Farm Aids, “and one of them I was in jail.” At the ones he was at though, he probably played the same three songs: “Christmas in Washington,” “Devil’s Right Hand” and “Copperhead Road.” Even if there were no surprises, Earle’s playing was angry and percussive, slamming the guitar strings behind his aggressive vocals. Though he’s sung the songs a thousand times, he seemed to relish each line, enrapturing an easily-distracted audience with just a guitar and harmonica.
Willie Nelson came out to introduce Nation Beat, a Brazilian-cum-Brooklyn septet. More surprisingly though, he stayed on, gamely strumming along his guitar to their dance rhythms. Highly energetic like world music peers Grupo Fantasma or Orchestra Baobob, the music was largely percussive, though a shit-hot violinist stole the show by providing most of the riffs and solos. Willie didn’t add much on their songs, but took over lead vocals on two Nelson staples: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The band made them their own however, loud and brash, the latter sounding more celebratory than lonely.
Abruptly killing the party vibe, Jakob Dylan and the Gold Mountain Rebels came on after a brief intro by the frequently-showing-up-uninvited Carson Daly. Dylan’s midtempo mumbling (must run in the family) sounded ready for adult-contemporary radio, but proved appealing for a crowd ready to sit back and watch the sun set. Songs from his new record filled the short set, including “Something Good This Way Comes,” “Will It Grow,” and, to appeal Wallflowers fans, “Shy of the Moon.”
Getting the opportunity to see Jerry Lee Lewis live is second only to seeing Elvis himself, and the crowd knew it, turning the twenty minute concert into one long standing ovation. Though sound problems led to him getting frustrated with postponements as he sat impatiently at his piano (“One minute?” he told a crew member. “I’m ready now!”), from opening “Roll Over Beethoven” to the inevitable closers “Whole Lotta Shakin’” and “Great Balls of Fire” he proved that age (73) hadn’t slowed him down. Sure, his enunciation was unintelligible, but his tenor proved as strong as ever, showing amazing lung power for his age. And though he wasn’t throwing his stool back or playing with his feet, he hit the ivories as strongly as ever, his basic chord slams as rocking as ever. On “You Win Again” he held long notes without wavering a bit, looking like your befuddled but lovable grandfather in an ill-fitting leather jacket that he managed to make look awkward yet still cool. Though Neil Young unfortunately didn’t join him like he did at the Bridge School Benefit last year, Lewis proved he doesn’t need a vanity duet to keep a crowd half his age dancing and shouting for more.
The Pretenders, unfortunately, haven’t aged as well. Chrissie Hynde is with a mostly new band and the songs, not that good to begin with, sounded stale and dated played by a middle-aged crew trying to look younger than they were. The mix was strange, with “Boots of Chinese Plastic” leading into “Maybe Tomorrow” but, shockingly, no “Brass in Pocket.”
The venue’s teenage girls, hidden among the old folks until now, suddenly made their presence known when Kenny Chesney took the stage. Ohmigod, Kenny! When they finally shut up enough to let him perform, you hoped they’d pick it back up again to drown him out. Country nothing that for some reason legitimate artists like Dave Matthews and Willie Nelson have taken a liking to. The latter in fact joined him onstage for a couple songs, “10 with a 2” and "Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning” which proved to be highlights of an otherwise painful set. Most songs were about growing up in the middle of nowhere, and tales of Chesney’s down-home childhood wore out their welcome fast. If he was added to bring the youth demo to the festival though, he certainly succeeded.
The frat guy vibe continued with Dave Matthews, the first headliner/board member. For his “solo” performance he brought along friend/longtime collaborator/guitar god Tim Reynolds, who easily stole the show. As Matthews drawled on about whatever, Reynolds provided acoustic licks, runs, and effects that, if they couldn’t quite bring utterly bland songs to life, at least gave them a couple jolts of the AED. Dave, however, seems not to have a humorous bone in his body, proving downright exhausting with all that sincerity. Why so serious? His between-song rambling was just as pointless, his incoherent pleas about family farmers surprisingly inane for someone running the festival. Nevertheless, his set too got a warm reception with college-kid hits like “Ants Marching” and “Where Are You Going.”
Bob Costas came out to introduce the Heartland Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp. With a big band pounding out unabashed rock’n’roll choruses, the confusion with the Boss would be easy to make. However, Mellencamp showed himself worthy of them company as he roamed the stage, encouraged audience participation, and went through crowd-pleasers like “Pink Houses” and “Authority Song” (though, second big surprise of the night: no “Jack & Diane”). Even when the band left him for a short acoustic set, he was alive and engaging, slamming his guitar with his sleeves rolled up in true workingman fashion as he told us way more than we needed to know about his “Small Town.” The band showed him at his frontman best though, fist-pumping, prancing about, and at one point talking on the phone to some audience member’s boyfriend (Mellencamp had to assure him that the girl was not too drunk). He’s never been an innovator or pioneer, but even if his whole persona is derivative of Bruce, Mellencamp proved able to live up to his more-famous peer.
With little fanfare Neil Young and his band took the stage and, before the crowd quite knew what was going on, broke into “Love and Only Love.” Looking like a farmer himself, or maybe a lumberjack, Young ripped into his guitar like he was seeing how much it could take, slamming out distorted solos and spastic runs while jerking and gyrating around. “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Powderfinger” followed, the contrast between Young’s fragile falsetto and his tough-as-nails guitar playing creating music of breakable beauty that seems like it could come crashing down at any moment.
Young moved over to the pump organ for “Mother Earth,” a neglectable tune given some life by the stripped back arrangement, organ swirling endlessly around the more pointed vocals and harmonica. He continued his quieter side with an acoustic “Old Man,” cramming both his rocking and mellow side into the short 45-minute set.
After "Unkown Legend" and “Get Back to the Country,” he played some opening chords that seemed very familiar, but not from a Neil Young song. Hey, isn’t that… Yes, it was “A Day In the Life.” Where the Beatles original was beautiful, orchestrated, and moving, Young’s cover was loud, violent and angry, exploding through the chords while laying his plaintive wail overtop that just about broke your heart. The noise and fury built and built as the song progressed, the crowd singing every word and even taking the lead on the “ahhhh” part, until by the end Young and the band reached their peak, creating their own wall of sound that was much less orchestrated, but just as powerful, building the distortion to monstrous levels as Young hammered his guitar’s pick-ups, hit it against the amp, and finally pulled out the strings one by one with a ferocious tearing sound. Young kept the reverb going as he stormed off stage. Though Willie Nelson was on next, that proved the night’s perfect end for me.
Jakob Dylan and the Gold Mountain Rebels
Jerry Lee Lewis
Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds