For only the second time in its 27-year history, Farm Aid came to Pennsylvania on Saturday, drawing close to 30,000 at Hersheypark Stadium for a little bit of information about family farming and a lot of great music.
Headlined as always by the Farm Aid Board of Directors -- founder Willie Nelson, Neil Young (this year with Crazy Horse in tow), John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, the more-than-10-hour concert also featured Kenny Chesney, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, Jack Johnson and others.
The annual event began in 1985 with an on-stage comment by Bob Dylan at Live Aid in Philadelphia and a first show in Champaign, Ill., that drew 78,000 and raised $9 million. The 2002 show was held in Burgettstown, west of Pittsburgh, and the 2006 show almost made it to the Keystone State, landing just across the border from Philadelphia in Camden, N.J.
At just after 2 p.m. Saturday, previously-unannounced guest Dale Watson kicked off Farm Aid 2012 with a two-song set backed by members of Nelson’s and Mellencamp’s bands. Watson then hopped a plane and played a gig in Austin, Texas, on Saturday night.
Following sets by ALO and Pegi Young and the Survivors (featuring Pegi’s husband Neil on guitar for one song), Nelson’s son, Lukas, and his band the Promise of the Real played a 30-minute set. Later in the day, the younger Nelson, whose voice is strikingly similar to his famous father’s, sang a duet with dad on Pearl Jam’s “Breathe.”
Singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson, making his fifth appearance at Farm Aid, played seven songs highlighted by “High Cost of Living” and “Give It Away,” a song he co-wrote with Bill Anderson for George Strait in 2006.
The concert reached one of its early highpoints as Grace Potter & The Nocturnals did an impassioned song about water, dedicated to the farmers dealing with this year’s drought, and “Medicine,” bringing the crowd to its feet as the entire band banged feverishly on the same drum set.
Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson followed with an entertaining set of his bouncy, acoustic gems, then Chesney and his band went over well with “Beer in Mexico,” “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems” and
“I Go Back.” Chesney also invited Potter to the stage for their popular duet “You and Tequila.”
Matthews was the first of the board members to take the stage, doing an hour-long, mostly acoustic set with guitarist Tim Reynolds. Matthews is pretty good with a guitar himself, but Reynolds is in a league of his own; his solos on “Funny The Way It Is” and “Crazy” were spellbinding. New song “Mercy” and opening number “Gravedigger” were particular standouts.
Mellencamp was up next, playing radically-rearranged versions of some of his biggest hits including “Authority Song,” “Check It Out” and “Paper In Fire.” Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow,” a song about the struggles of family farmers during the mortgage crisis of the 1980s, is always a Farm Aid highpoint, as was his version of “Small Town,” joined by Chesney.
Young and his on-again, off-again collaborators Crazy Horse (who released an album “Americana” earlier this year and have another one coming next month) played a five-song set including knockout versions of “Country Home,” “Mr. Soul” and “Like a Hurricane.” Young brought out Nelson to play guitar on the Farm Aid-inspired sing-along “Homegrown.”
Taking the stage well after 11 p.m., Willie Nelson & Family capped the concert with the Willie standards “Whiskey River,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and “On The Road Again.” The medley featuring three of the greatest songs ever written – “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life” – was particularly hot on this evening, as was the gospel medley featuring “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
Joined by nearly the entire cast plus a gospel quartet and a choir, the concert ended with a highly-entertaining version of Willie’s “gospel” song “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
As strange a sight and sound as it was, it was the perfect way to bring an absolutely perfect day to a close.