The 24th annual Farm Aid started with the old-school gospel quartet harmonies of the Blackwood Brothers and enough warm sunshine to persuade all the family farms in Missouri -- the Show Me State has the second highest number of farms in the Union -- that their summer work is far from over. What Willie says, goes -- as much for the weather as for the capacity crowd of old-timers, outlaw-wannabes, fraternal DMB dudes, free-range hippies, redneck women, corporate weasels and children regaled in anti-factory farm merch. Now if Willie could just get rid of the ever-dominant, sub-homegrown concession stands at the Verizon Wireless Ampitheater.
1:18 p.m.: The first "I Love You Willie!" of the day rang out as the president and founder of Farm Aid (which was started after a tip from Bob Dylan) introduced the day's second act, Phosphorescent. The mopespheric Americana band from Brooklyn, New York, recently released a tribute CD to Nelson that's a solid listen, even if you don't have any homegrown at hand. Dressed in the day's uniform -- plaid, flannel, black or grey -- and one long coat from Dennis "McCloud" Weaver's closet, the sextet was surprisingly lively, turning in three songs (that's all the openers would get) that sounded by turns like G-Rated Bonnie Prince Billy and outtakes from Wilco's Being There. The band ended with "Reasons to Quit," a Merle Haggard song sweetened by the first of Nelson's ritual guest appearances.
Boston up-and-comer Will Dailey followed. Few would guess Jack Ingram and Wilco, as heard on "The Late Greats," would have become so influential, but you could sense both in the limber, twangy strut of opening song "Down the Drain," as sure as you could sense the alt-country bathos in the plea of his second number, "How Can I Make You Happy." (Two answers come to mind: one, stop asking; and two, less Adult Album Alternative and more classic rock hooks.) The Springsteen-as-'70s-roots-punk impersonation of the closing song "Undone" was closer to the mark.
After Dailey's set, a representative of Farm Aid sponsor Horizon Organic delivered a billboard-sized check for $150K to Willie and pled, "Pray for the farmers!" Later the call would turn more secular, as emcees begged the crowd to pull out their cell phones and text the word FARMER to 90999 to donate $5 to the cause. A quick survey of the pricey seats suggested an underwhelming response.
The same could not be said of the reception given Lukas Nelson, technically the son of Willie, but more likely the love child of Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Susan Tedeschi, what with his Stratocaster and guitar face going the full blues-rock freak-out for a set that trespassed on headliner length. His blue bandanna, pilot shades and black T-shirt proclaiming "It Is What It Is" put the punctuation to the Oedipal drama. Every solo, including a bare-hand breakdown from the drummer, indicated his trio was trying very, very hard to distinguish themselves from the father, a man who knows a thing or two about messing with the blues. The kid can play, but he might think twice about covering Neil Young ("L.A." for those keeping score) before that headliner was even up from his Sunday nap. (At least he didn't cover "Crash.") He did, however, give a shout out to God as he left the stage. The farmers are still waiting for a shout back. Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses completed the scrappy, scruffy, roots rock trifecta of the early afternoon, with a welcome dose of well-crafted songwriting, especially on the made-for-Farm-Aid opener "Hard Times," the kind of outlaw, country-pride lyric with which Willie would be glad to share authorship. Lanky and strangely stately beneath a wide brim straw hat, Bingham just laid down dirty slide-guitar licks, while Mickey Raphael, the harmonica maestro of the Nelson Family Band, grinned and blew between the phrases. Bingham has unassuming star potential, a no-bullshit band, and a Tequila-ravaged voice that's at once singer-songwriter sincere and self-effacing. And though he was one of the lesser known acts on the bill, he seemed to connect with the crowd, even getting a clap-along-chorus going on his closing number "Bread and Water." A fourth song would have been welcome, but not to be.
The only act on the day's bill with deeper farming roots than Nelson was the poet laureate of Waco, Texas, Billy Joe Shaver, a legend who, over the last three years, has had to cancel more shows in the St. Louis-area than George Jones. Farm Aid continued that streak, as Shaver's flight was delayed, throwing the first real kink into the machine-like precision of the festival. Jamey Johnson, the unlikely country star behind the hit "In Color," filled the slot with his own brand of rural, working-class authenticity.
He's a compelling dude -- part David Allen Coe, part Rob Zombie - and has a shrewd pedal-steel player, and a loud and tight straight-up country rock band. He opened with the clever outlaw wordplay of "High Cost of Living" (which is always trumped by the cost of living high), followed by "That Lonesome Song" and "Mowin' Down the Roses." Johnson closed out with "In Color," may be the best anti-nostalgia country anthem since Harlan Howard's "Busted." Even the Jason Mraz fans took notice.
Phosphorescent A Picture Of Our Torn Up Praise Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down Reasons to Quit
Will Dailey Down the Drain How Can I Make You Happy Undone
Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses Hard Times Sunshine Bread and Water
Jamey Johnson: High Cost of Living That Lonesome Song Mowing Down the Roses You Can't Cash My Checks In Color