Live: The momentary miracle of Farm Aid | Music

Live: The momentary miracle of Farm Aid


"We wish we didn’t have to be here," said Neil Young at Farm Aid in Raleigh. - PHOTO BY DAN SCHRAM
  • Photo by Dan Schram
  • "We wish we didn’t have to be here," said Neil Young at Farm Aid in Raleigh.
Farm Aid 2014
Walnut Creek Amphitheatre, Raleigh
Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014

On Saturday, Neil Young seemed tired—tired of writing songs that don’t change the world, tired of singing them for big crowds that might not be listening, tired of those crowds that, after three decades of massive Farm Aid benefits, have not sparked a revolution for themselves.

“Thank you for coming to Farm Aid. We wish we didn’t have to be here,” Young said late from the stage of Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Amphitheatre, wearing a faded shirt that simply read “Earth” and a wireless microphone that allowed him to move freely about the stage. “We thought we were going to be done after Farm Aid One, but we are facing a massive conspiracy.”

Young launched into a tirade against Senator Richard Burr and told the crowd to tote their chorus of boos into the voting booth, sentiments he'd already offered at a morning press conference. He sang of “a world controlled by oil.” And only two songs after greeting the capacity-plus crowd, he stopped singing altogether for about three minutes. He chose, instead, to walk from one side of the stage to another, ambling in circles and ovals as he pointed at the crowd of just less than 20,000 people, sizing up their enthusiasm for his cause. Unequal parts irascible college professor, frustrated father and long-standing believer, Young lectured about the perils of imported produce and the power of voting with your wallet. Mostly, he wanted there to be no question why a dozen acts had walked onstage during the daylong concert: They were there to overhaul American agriculture, if not the government itself.

“Thank you, everybody,” he concluded after a seven-song set that, of course, ended with “Rockin’ in the Free World.” “We love you. Do what you can.”

In fact, Young might have been the only performer on the bill of the inaugural Raleigh Farm Aid with the ability to do what he did: to stop his show and sell his set short in order to preach to a particularly sudsy crowd. He played only seven songs, moving to the organ for “Mother Earth” and recruiting guitarists Lukas and Micah Nelson (yes, the kids of another Farm Aid overlord) for the closer. Collectively, though, they were intense and angled enough to allow him that particular non-musical platform. And he owned it, delivering the purest and most purposeful performance of the day.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the peak of Farm Aid 2014, or that plenty of others didn’t do what they could: In spite of his obsession with antediluvian blues and country and his inclination for technologies dependent on tubes, Jack White only knows how to be a rock star these days. He didn’t soften the feeling for the Farm Aid cause. His was the only band to bring, for instance, its own stage setup—onstage video screens, white monitors, white keyboard cases. And rather than go with the cozy images of bucolic living that backed the other acts, White favored scrambled digital signals and dizzying arrays of blue and white lines, meant to match his band’s peerless and stunning fashion sense. He romped freely between material from his days as a White Stripe and recent recordings under his own name, playing loud and mean and unrepentant. “It’s not a picnic, is it?” the cocksure White teased, underlining the obvious for the suddenly ecstatic crowd: He was on the bill to add multiple exclamation marks, so get out of your expensive seat. 
Green man, Todd Snider, at Farm Aid in Raleigh - PHOTO BY DAN SCHRAM
  • Photo by Dan Schram
  • Green man, Todd Snider, at Farm Aid in Raleigh

The picnic portions were, at times, great, too. Todd Snider’s early afternoon set, for instance, exhaled wit and wisdom, the crisp and dense observations of his four-folk-song set emphasizing both halves of his smartass reputation. The gathering crowd laughed at every joke and nodded at every keen observation. Gary Clark Jr. let his riffs whip against the low afternoon skies, his cool demeanor reflecting attention to what he was playing and (unlike White) not how he was playing it. Not long before him, Jamey Johnson—whose mix of pointed songs and no-nonsense reckoning position him as the inheritor the Farm Aid mantle—turned his set into a gathering of family and friends. Supported by an expert seven-piece band, he sang his hit “In Color” with his father, Howard, and a delicate rendition of “Dream a Little Dream of Me” with Maui singer Lily Meola. And if Preservation Hall Jazz Band wants to play my picnic, I’ll have one every day; with the sun up and the lawn loaded with afternoon drinkers, their set felt like the summer afterglow, horns honking and gliding and pianos bounding and bumping.
Nice and easy, Gary Clark Jr. at Farm Aid In Raleigh - PHOTO BY DAN SCHRAM
  • Photo by Dan Schram
  • Nice and easy, Gary Clark Jr. at Farm Aid In Raleigh

The day wasn’t without its faults. Big industry connections notwithstanding, I’m still struggling to understand the reasoning for Delta Rae’s role as the emissary of local music at Raleigh’s first Farm Aid. All volume and pizzazz and no finesse or craft, their music suggests the sort of mass-manufactured products that folks like Young have railed against for so long. I doubt Delta Rae did much to power Farm Aid toward its inevitable sell-out, either. As they pounded their drums and clanged their chains and shouted one crescendo after another, like over-caffeinated toddlers in a rumpus room, I found myself wishing for American Aquarium or Mount Moriah, Hiss Golden Messenger or Chatham County Line—someone that could match the feeling and meaning of the rest of the bill with local insight. Too bad the call went to the kids with the expensive contract.

The same feeling lingered throughout much of John Mellencamp’s set; when Farm Aid launched in the mid-’80s, he was the young gun of the original triumvirate, the peppy kid with new hit records. But nearly three decades later, he reminds me of a pet without its owner, lost in the quest for relevance in a world that’s gotten both too big and too small for his stock responses. During a morning press conference, he rambled incoherently about the evils of the dairy industry and school lunches before slouching deeply in his seat, as though he were watching a bad football game. And his set bent largely toward his age-old hits, with any modern commentary resigned to some empty insistence that these things are timeless, man. Sure, “Rain on the Scarecrow” still seems to be the unofficial anthem of Farm Aid, but it’s as old as an event that’s finding new ways to stay young. That was the implicit lesson of Willie Nelson's long, headlining, guest-heavy set; he brought out the kids and kept bringing them out, allowing people from Meola to members of Preservation Hall to waltz and wobble through his hits. He smiled, waved and picked at center stage.

Indeed, to that end, the real winner of the day—and the day’s real reminder to, as Young put it, “do what you can”—came not onstage or in any press conference or onstage lecture but, instead, around the edge of the venue itself. During the last decade, sheds like Walnut Creek have been among the real losers of the music industry’s asymptotic decline; at this point, if you’re not going to see a country music superstar with 20,000 other people drinking Coors Light on a summer night, there’s a statistically significant chance that you’re not going at all.

At Farm Aid, though, the dense throng arrived early, stayed late and greeted most every set like it was the best music they’d heard in months. The threat of rain, which came early but not often, didn’t diminish enthusiasm or the patchwork of beach towels, blankets and lawn chairs that lined the venue’s oft-underutilized hill. Less than a week before Farm Aid, I visited Walnut Creek to attend The Big Shindig, a bungled revival of the peculiar brand of all-day mini-festivals that became big promotional business for radio stations in the late ’90s. It felt more like a funeral than a rebirth, though, with modest and mildly interested crowds milling between a main and a side stage to take in sets from has-beens and may-never-be's, to drink wine from plastic carafes shaped like guitars, and mostly to pass a very gray day in the city. Instead, Farm Aid suggested that spaces like this still have some vitality, that these enormous and expensive complexes need not senesce into greyfield lands simply because the era of shed-filling superstars has faded. You just have to work.

Farm Aid didn’t do this only through music. The event put its money where its mission is, linking with local farmers and breweries, vendors and nonprofits to set up educational outposts on the festival grounds and to offer substantive, affordable alternatives to the high-fructose-flooded food and drink normally found in such entertainment relics. People packed a long tent to learn about hemp farming and immigrant farmworkers, and they sat reverently in another to hear the woeful tale of Sandra Garner, who's now fighting to keep the farm her family has owned for nearly three centuries. 
Sandra Garner and Gennell Pridgen are fighting to keep their nearly 300-year-old family farm. They spoke at Farm Aid 2014 in Raleigh. - PHOTO BY DAN SCHRAM
  • Photo by Dan Schram
  • Sandra Garner and Gennell Pridgen are fighting to keep their nearly 300-year-old family farm. They spoke at Farm Aid 2014 in Raleigh.

And The Purple Parrot Lounge, for instance, is a rear-venue alcove, where one presumes a lot of Jimmy Buffett fans chug cheap margaritas exactly once a year. On Saturday, the bar was open, but the rest of the space was lined with regional food vendors—Raleigh’s The Pit and Durham’s Scratch, lamb from Sandra Garner's Rainbow Meadow and corn from Greener Fields Together. For $5, I had an iced mocha made from Slingshot Coffee and Escazu chocolate; for $3, I had fresh cheese curds slathered in garlic and chives, from Lilly Den Farm in Chatham County. I don’t know if I’ve ever had better, more reasonably priced food at such an event. And throughout the rest of the amphitheater, an army of local breweries—Big Boss and Triangle, Natty Greene’s and White Street, Crank Arm and Deep River, only to sample—competed with the big-time concessionaires, even if their draughts were priced at $15 for a bit more than a pint. Peanut vendors dotted the grounds, as did produce stands run by area teenagers, selling fresh peaches and apples for prices you might find at the grocery store.

On Saturday, then, Walnut Creek became a group of people gathered to celebrate not just music but a common goal in a centralized location—briefly but poignantly, it was a community. I hope someone told Neil Young about the feeling in the crowd, about how empty Walnut Creek often is, and about how he and Willie’s 30-year-old pipe dream is still doing good work, even if revolution has yet to arrive.

The architect, Willie Nelson, at Farm Aid 2014 - PHOTO BY DAN SCHRAM
  • Photo by Dan Schram
  • The architect, Willie Nelson, at Farm Aid 2014

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