At Bob Geldof’s Live Aid concert in 1985, Bob Dylan remarked on stage, “Wouldn’t it be great if we did something for our farmers right here in America?” Not long after, Farm Aid was established. On Sunday in Tinley Park, Ill., at the 20th anniversary of the first Farm Aid concert, it seemed like the issue at hand took a backseat to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. The organizers’ mission is still to urge Americans to choose organic foods from family farms, but the performers also focused on Gulf Coast aid. Despite the sobering realities, the concert couldn’t have occurred on a more beautiful afternoon. The diverse crowd came from all over the Midwest to see headliners and Farm-Aid board members Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Willie Nelson pay tribute to our often-overlooked providers.
The Tweeter Center’s doors opened at noon, but most of the 28,000 strong crowd waited until later in the afternoon to take their seats. The first act to receive an enthusiastic reception and undivided attention was Chicago native and blues guitarist Buddy Guy. Joining the legendary Guy was a scruffy-looking John Mayer. This event, marking the first appearance of the two artists together, saw the duo leaning more toward the blues than Mayer’s pop inclinations.
Local political sensation, Sen. Barrack Obama made an unannounced appearance to introduce Chicago’s reigning rock royalty, Wilco. After a thunderous reception, singer Jeff Tweedy admonished the crowd saying that they could indeed make a difference while leading the band in live staples “Jesus, Etc” and “Casino Queen.”
Taking the stage after a Kenny Chesney, Dave Matthews didn’t dissapoint in his first performance since his recent annulment from Renee Zellwegger. Despite “feeling a little nervous,” Matthews’s stage presence took over as he captivated with his solo set. Playing unaccompanied, Matthews mixed songs from his solo album with bigger hits from The Dave Matthews Band. Coming across as shy and gracious, Matthews provided an interesting contrast to the man who followed him, John Mellencamp. A founder of Farm Aid, Mellencamp drew a favorable reaction, but his performance was clearly not in the same league as the other headliners. Choosing to preach between every one of his bland anthems, Mellencamp’s outspoken statements about Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war stood in stark contrast with the stoicism of Neil Young.
The picture of class, Young provided the show’s most poignant moment by opening his set with Fats Dominoes’ “Walking to New Orleans.” Backed by the Memphis Horns and his own gospel choir, Young’s set sounded unusually intimate for such a large venue. Young also took the biggest risk of the evening by following “Walking to New Orleans” with the politically charged “Southern Man.” The words took on a new meaning with Young’s anti-racism lyrics also providing biting commentary on the government’s poor relief efforts along the Gulf coast. In top musical form, his guitar solos provided the most scathing commentary. Following “Southern Man,” Young brought up Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, providing a preview of the party that was Nelson’s closing set.
Willie Nelson ended the nearly 10-hour day on a classy note. Playing upbeat hits, his Family Band, Nelson and his trusty guitar, Trigger, brought the focus back to the cause at hand. Nelson used his platform as the show’s closer highlight the struggles of American farmers. The restoration of American dignity was Willie’s goal, and Farm Aid was a great first step.