Verizon Wireless Amphitheater closed out its 2009 season by hosting the 24th annual Farm Aid concert, the first time the event has been held in St. Louis. Seasonably cool weather delighted those in attendance — a motley crew that RFT writer Roy Kasten described as a "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."
But of course, music was the most important aspect of the day. Sets by once-local darling Jeff Tweedy and Wilco, St. Louis resident Ernie Isley and area sweetheart Gretchen Wilson gave the event local flair, while stalwart headliners — Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson — made it a day to remember. — Annie Zaleski
1:18 p.m.: The first "I Love You Willie!" of the day rang out as Nelson 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 gray — 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-size 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 itself 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-brimmed straw hat, Bingham 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.
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 always trumps 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.— Roy Kasten
Ernie Isley & the Jam Band
Ernie Isley's appearance at Farm Aid was a coup on two fronts: Not only was he the only current St. Louis resident to take the stage, he was the only African-American to headline a set. These days Ernie is the last man standing from the legendary Isley Brothers (lead singer Ronald is nearing the end of a three-year prison term for tax evasion), and the Farm Aid set provided the biggest stage for his musical reinvention from sideman to lead singer.
Backed by the three-member Jam Band (composed of local musicians), he opened with "Rising from the Ashes," from his 1990 solo record, High Wire, displaying the creamy and urgent guitar tone that helped define the Isley sound. Isley's a first-class rock & roll guitarist from a family known for soul, funk and smooth R&B — and naturally, he brought out his bag of tricks. He played the guitar behind his back and plucked the strings with his teeth, to the delight of the small but enthusiastic crowd gathered in the first few rows.
As a singer, he doesn't quite relish every note like his older brother Ron, but he performed the '70s soul classic "That Lady" with plenty of soul. The set ended with what Isley termed a "Sunday song," the gospel-groove "Shout." The song was the Isley Brothers' first big hit, recorded long before youngest brother Ernie joined the band, but on Sunday it was both a recognition of the family's place in rock & roll history and, as always, a great party starter.— Christian Schaeffer
You know what you're going to get during a Gretchen Wilson concert: no-frills, unpretentious, hard-twanging country-rock tunes — with an emphasis on the rock. Her mid-afternoon set kicked off with the 2004 hit "Here for the Party." Sporting a black camisole, sparkly silver belt and jeans and big hoop earrings, the Pocahontas, Illinois, native grinned her way through the tune.
Wilson's songs about hard-working men and women — those who prefer beer and whiskey, and jeans and T-shirts, to fancier things — still don't fit into Nashville's current musical climate. If Taylor Swift is country's latest girl-next-door princess — albeit one who wears sneakers and T-shirts instead of fancy frocks — Wilson is the tough girl who's new to town, ready to corrupt with a flask of Jack and a carton of smokes.
But Wilson's bluesy, hard-rock edge — her band soundchecked with a snippet of the Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane" and her guitarists and electric fiddler exhibited some serious meedlee-meedlee-mee riffage later in the set — helps keep her from being pigeonholed. Newer tune 'Work Hard, Play Harder" resembled the bluesy boogie of the Black Crowes' "Jealous Again" (although so much so that the band actually sued her last year for copyright infringement) and it sounded like a bit of ZZ Top-referencing honky-tonk slipped in during "There's a Place in the Whiskey." And a shredding version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" broke out after "Politically Uncorrect," as the band raised an American flag high above the stage, to riotous applause.
Wilson's voice needs no effects or manipulation to sound clear and strong, and she was clearly humbled and honored to be performing. She was clearly having tons of fun, too: Right after "All Jacked Up" she took a generous swig of Jack Daniel's, then launched into "Redneck Woman." Clusters of women stood up around the pavilion and sang along proudly to the song's rallying cry: "Hell yeah!" (AZ)
Fellow RFT writer Christian Schaeffer made a salient observation about Wilco during its Farm Aid set: Seeing the band in a festival setting is an entirely different experience from seeing it in a club. Compared to the band's three-night Pageant stand last year, this was certainly the case. Those shows had no shortage of raucous moments, but yesterday's set was loose and raw — more like the tightest jam session you'll ever see than a well-orchestrated gig.
Now, this isn't to say that the six-song set was a mess. It was quite the opposite, in fact, starting with a stunning version of "Bull Black Nova," from this year's Wilco (The Album). Mixing Television's ringing chord repetition with Tweedy's gruff soul-man vocals — and a crashing, unison chorus that underscored the band's tightness — the song kept building and building in intensity and volume as it progressed, culminating in a hurricane of noise: Tweedy, bassisst John Stirratt and guitarists Nels Cline and Pat Sansone pounding out shrieking riffs and masterminding effects. The look on Tweedy's face during this section was bulldog-ferocious and intense — the kind you'd be scared to meet if you saw him in a dark alley.
Guitar heroics were a common thread throughout, whether they involved Cline's nuanced plucking on "Impossible Germany" or Sansone's lazy windmills, Who-style, throughout the set. More impressive, the pair even had an entertaining guitar duel on final song "Hoodoo Voodoo." As Tweedy stood back and grinned at his bandmates, Cline did some guitar mumbo-jumbo on the left side of the stage and spun around like a wobbly marionette. Muttonchop-sporting Sansone, meanwhile, hammed it up a bit more with some classic guitar-solo faces and moves, such as aiming his axe like a gun. (Who won? Call it a draw.)
It was also Casual Friday in the Wilco camp sartorially, with most sporting plaid shirts or dress shirts and scruffy facial hair/haircuts. (Only pianist/multi-instrumentalist/cowbell handler Mikael Jorgensen held it down in a natty suit.) This extended to Tweedy's banter, which included a cheeky nod to the area's lack of pride: "I'm from Belleville," he said before "Heavy Metal Drummer." Cue cheering, as he continued: "Usually, we say" — and here he lowered his voice and sounded meeker — "Hey."
He then mentioned the Landing (of course) before "Drummer," a song that was far more power-pop than usual, thanks to some soaring falsetto lines and harmonies. And right before "Casino Queen" — in response to Gretchen Wilson asking the crowd who was a redneck — Tweedy pointedly asked the crowd: "With all due respect, who's not a redneck?" Folks cheered, as he made it a point to say: "Not everybody who grows up here is a redneck."
It's not a stretch to call Jason Mraz the hottest act at Farm Aid 2009. He may not have the legacy of Willie or the hipster cachet of Wilco, but Mraz's star is still on the rise and seems to show no sign of dimming. Mraz's continued climb to the top, however, is accompanied by a healthy dose of maturity. His songs are always upbeat, but there's a communal consciousness and a holistic spirituality just beneath the good-time vibes. Mraz made his intentions known with his first song, a slightly downtempo version of his hit, "The Remedy." His vocals carried a more soulful payload than the radio version, and the tension crescendoed with the appearance of a horn trio, which gave the song a Latin tinge to go along with the reggae-light upstrokes.
With the possible exception of Neil Young, Mraz was the most vocal about Farm Aid's mission, exhorting the crowd to "flex those activist muscles" and support family farms. He knows what he's talking about: Mraz owns a five-acre avocado farm in San Diego, a biographical detail that's almost too good to be true. (One wonders: Does he wear that straw fedora whilst gardening?)
But while the set started in a low-key fashion (the second song "Never Too Late" was similarly slow-burning), Mraz's charm and goodwill were transmitted to the back of the lawn. Mraz is like an acoustic-pop Justin Timberlake: He's charming and eager to please, and you just might love him in spite of yourself. Or maybe he's a white Bob Marley, preaching togetherness with laid-back grooves. "Anything You Want" was a call to unity through dub-like vibes and included one of the festival's several oblique marijuana references when he sang that "you can grow anything you want." Perhaps he was talking about avocados. Either way, the crowd ate it up. (CS)
Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds
Dave Matthews paired with longtime collaborator Tim Reynolds for a seven-song set of spare (but forceful) renditions of old and new numbers. Matthews, clad in jeans and a blue Oxford shirt, sounded a little hoarse and froggy at times but shared his rambling, dry sense of humor with the crowd.
The set began with "Funny the Way it is," one of three songs performed from this year's Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King. The two acoustic guitars overwhelmed the vocals for most of the song, but elsewhere in the set the duo played against each other and brought out the dark and rootsy undertones of Matthews' songbook. Reynolds, looking like a cipher in shades and a black leather jacket, gave some spirited picking and resonant slide guitar to "Grace Is Gone" and used his effects pedals to simulate a weeping violin solo elsewhere in the set.
Matthews and Reynolds had the good fortune to perform as the sun was setting, and the bucolic "Stay or Leave," with its images of late-night trips to the riverbanks, coincided beautifully with the end of an Indian summer afternoon. And as darkness fell, so too did the mood: Willie Nelson, ever the Farm Aid diplomat, joined Matthews and Reynolds for a haunting pass at "Gravedigger," a song perfectly suited for Nelson's quavering tenor voice.
The set ended with the only real "hit" of night, a driving take on "Dancing Nancies." It was here that Reynolds earned his keep, spinning off a flamenco-inspired solo that propelled the song towards its peak and no doubt reminded the diehards why they keep coming back for more. (CS)
John Mellencamp and his crack band may have stolen the show. The Seymour, Indiana, native opened his nine-song set with slower versions of "Pink Houses" and "Paper in Fire." The youthful intensity Mellencamp exuded when he called himself Johnny Cougar has smoldered into a slower-burning passion, as exemplified in the latter song during the chorus. Multiple members of his band lined up near the front of the stage like a marching-band squad, their voices swelling in a riotous call to arms.
That a communal spirit permeated Mellencamp's songs should be no surprise: Guitarist Mike Wanchic has been a Coug collaborator for 30-plus years and guitarist Andy York is also a long-term band member. Their versatility was more impressive, however. Mellencamp's nicotine-stained voice cut through "If I Die Sudden," which had a shuffling, Texas honky-tonk feel, while "Troubled Land" sailed forward on a plush organ bed. And of course, Miriam Sturm's nimble violin dominated the chestnut "Check It Out," and she and accordionist/keyboardist Troye Kinnett played an instrumental mini-symphony before an awe-inspiring version of "Rain on the Scarecrow."
At least stylistically, that tune should be one of many considered to be alt-country ground zero. But Mellencamp doesn't get enough credit as an influence (or enough critical praise for his reflective later work), which frees him to just be a badass. He ended many songs with what we termed the "Coug punctuation mark" — an arm cocked back as if to throw a punch that instead ended in a pumped fist, i.e., "Yesss!" — and carried his guitar almost like a barbell.
An acoustic version of "Small Town" was a crowd pleaser — and not to be outdone by Willie and his kid, Mellencamp even brought out his son to play guitar on show-closer "Authority Song." Although the towheaded teen seemed a little nervous to be out there, the tune hasn't lost any of its defiant luster. Authority might always win — but Mellencamp still always comes out on top. (AZ)
John Mellencamp's introduction — directed toward what still-sizable crowd remained after Dave Matthews had left the building — reminded that Neil Young has been with Farm Aid since the start. He remains the cantankerous old crank the event needs. The death-by-progress of American agriculture is no joke. In a straw fedora, flannel shirt and red "Stop Factory Farms" T-shirt, he looked ready for a desperate protest. "We need our farms back!" he shouted, and then launched into an initially lurching, then gliding "Sail Away."
Backed by pedal steel and slide guitar legend Ben Keith and Spooner Oldham on delicate electric piano, along with wife Pegi on harmonies and a grizzled rhythm section of Rick Rosas and Karl Himmel, Young made the most of the largely acoustic eight-song set, relishing the tranquil twelve-string beauty of "Already One" and the folksy stomp of "Field of Opportunity" and "Homegrown." On the latter he called out Willie, who strapped on Trigger for a duel with "Old Black," Neil's equally iconic Les Paul Special. Nelson gave the face-off his best but never quite found the right openings in the ramshackle groove.
Midway through the set, Young demanded we "read the label" and then ripped his T-shirt down the middle to reveal a green "Go Family Farms" logo. "It's a big complicated mess," he'd say later. "I don't have time to tell you about it." Indeed he didn't, so there'd be no extended soapbox free associations, just a scowling "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" and a lovely, cautionary "Comes a Time." But then Shakey was gone it seemed before he ever really got started. "Support family farms! We're too small to fail!" They are, but for all of Farm Aid's good works, the field of opportunity is shrinking fast. (RK)
If Farm Aid (either the concert or the non-profit) were run like a Willie Nelson concert, we wouldn't be celebrating the show's 24th anniversary. The wheels would have come off long ago. A Willie Nelson show is loose, shambling and, at times, barely coherent. Luckily, it's also a tour of American music guided by one of its finest practitioners, a first-class songwriter and country music's first iconoclast.
Kicking off with "Whiskey River," Nelson and his band shuffled through nearly twenty songs that touched on folk, blues, jazz, rock and gospel, often in the same song. With his trusty, decrepit guitar Trigger strapped around his neck, Willie sets his own tempo and key signature, sometimes strumming erratically and sometimes tearing off a tear-jerking guitar solo.
Nelson speak-sang through the deathless "Funny How Time Slips Away," which led into a medley of the similarly unstoppable "Crazy" and "Night Life." These were far from the definitive versions, but to hear the songwriter cast off these chestnuts in quick succession was a trip. Imagine Irving Berlin on stage, spinning through "White Christmas," "Blue Skies" and "God Bless America" as if they were nothing special. Now picture Berlin with a white beard, a red bandanna and a tight black UnderArmour shirt, and you start to get the idea.
Always a gracious host, Nelson shared the stage with his family members — sister Bobbie played the instrumental "Down Yonder" on piano and son Lukas tore through "Texas Flood" with bluesy abandon. He shares his daddy's rushed cadences but sings an octave higher, giving the song an urgent yearning.
After a few more hits ("Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground," "Always on My Mind"), Nelson brought out Billy Joe Shaver, whose scheduled Farm Aid 2009 set was canceled because of a delayed flight. Shaver and Nelson shared the mic on Shaver's "You Asked Me To" and "Georgia on a Fast Train." Shaver, in good humor, stalked the stage wearing all denim as his bandmates joined Nelson's seemingly ever-growing brood.
This all-for-one spirit continued to what can be loosely termed the "all-star jam" at the show's end. Nelson invited whomever was backstage to come out and sing some gospel tunes (and a few Hank Williams songs). The members of Phosphorescent seemed to get a kick out of it, but fellow Farm Aid bigwigs Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews were nowhere to be seen. In their stead, though, we had a few Native American dancers in full-plumed regalia as well as a member of the United States armed forces, who appeared to stand at attention at stage left throughout the proceedings.
It was a weird, disjointed ending to a scattered set, but one that encompassed the all-for-one spirit of the event. Still, the lack of interaction among the Farm Aid principals (and the near-lack of cross-pollination between other artists) made one wonder how much of this event is rote and routine after 24 years. (CS)
At press time, an HD video webcast of Farm Aid 2009 was accessible via www.farmaid.org.