By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
Several years ago and less than a quarter mile from the gigantic Farm Aid stage at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., Willie Nelson welcomed Bob Dylan onto the stage. It wasn’t that big of a surprise – the pair was playing minor league ballparks together for the first time that summer – but it was incredible to watch the two titans collaborate.
Despite Farm Aid’s star power, Saturday’s nearly 11-hour musical marathon/fundraiser didn’t feature any similar big-name collaborations but that’s about the biggest disappointment that could be leveled at the day.
The first of 16 artists went onstage at 1 p.m., but it wasn’t until Hearts of Darkness, Kansas City’s Afro-beat ensemble, came out a half hour later that the stadium started feeling less like a dress rehearsal and more like a concert.
The first half of the day was heavy on folkies and country music legends. Ray Price, 85, looked frail, but his deep baritone voice is immortal. His delivery on songs like “For the Good Times” and “City Lights” still pack the same emotional punch as it did when they were recorded nearly 40 years ago. Billy Joe Shaver proved to be spry at 71 as he hooted and scooted his way through “Wacko from Waco,” “Georgia on a Fast Train” and “Honky-Tonk Heroes.” It would have been great to witness either Shaver or Price duet with Nelson – Price and Nelson have recorded a handful of albums together – but with mid-afternoon sets, the two were likely well-settled in their hotel rooms by the time Nelson ended the day several hours later.
Robert Francis and British actress Rebecca Pigeon (the only female performer on the bill) each delivered 30-minute sets of fine folk music, but the only performance that stood out was Francis’ cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”
The final acts before the headliners could have filed under nepotism, but provided some of the daytime’s strongest moments. With a singing voice eerily similar to his dad’s, Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real married Texas blues with the Allman Brothers Band’s Southern boogie. Backed by former Wallflowers pianist Rami Jaffee, Jakob Dylan delivered several of his old band’s biggest hits, including “Sixth Avenue Heartache,” “Sleepwalker” and “One Headlight.” At times, the pairing of Dylan and Jaffee recalled Tom Petty’s more delicate work with Heartbreakers ivoryman Benmont Tench.
The unfortunate dud in this stretch came unexpectedly from Jamey Johnson, who despite getting an assist from Lukas Nelson and a solid six-piece band filled his time with too many mid-tempo numbers that failed to ignite both onstage and in the crowd.
Taking the stage shortly before 7 p.m., Mraz faced the biggest crowd of the day so far and drew more applause than any of the preceding acts. Mraz got an assist delivering his bouncy acoustic folk/pop from longtime friend Toca Rivera on percussion and backing vocals. Their jazzy version of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (a.k.a. Mr. Roger’s theme song) drew a big reaction.
Several of his songs fit well with the day’s themes. Mraz said he wrote “Frank D. Fixer” for Farm Aid about the first farmer he knew, his grandpa. The second verse, ending with the line “what happened to the family farm?” was especially poignant.
Primed by Mraz, Dave Matthews fans were more than ready for their hero. Matthews – with help from guitarist Tim Reynolds – didn’t disappoint. His 45-minute set was packed with sing-alongs “Crush,” “Where Are You Going?” and the set-closing “Dancing Nancies.”
The crowd was ready for more singing when John Mellencamp emerged with his five-piece band, but Mellencamp played on his own terms. Detours through “Walk Tall,” “Death Letter Blues” and “If I Die Sudden” confused an assembly clamoring for the hits, but they were ultimately rewarded with a spectacular performance of “Check It Out” along with Farm Aid anthem “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Small Town” and “Pink Houses.” A quiet reading of “Jackie Brown” performed only by Mellencamp and violinist Miriam Sturm was another highlight.
Neil Young needed only a harmonica and acoustic guitar to take the title of the day’s best set. He only played six songs, but the first three were a murder’s row of favorites: “Comes A Time,” “Sugar Mountain” and “Long May You Run.” Attention spans may have wandered during Young’s sermons against corporate farms and a pair of songs from last year’s excellent “Le Noise,” but he easily won the audience back with the opening chords of “Heart of Gold.” This was the fourth time I’ve seen Young but my first with him in coffeehouse mold. Experiencing these songs in such an intimate way was powerful and emotional, leaving me with goosebumps and a lump in my throat.
After Young’s transcendental set anything would be anti-climatic, and Willie Nelson drew the short straw for ending the day. While neither Mellencamp nor Young emerged beyond their appointed times, Nelson worked the stage all day, opening the concert, accepting checks and thanking people. Understandably fatigued, Nelson’s set was light on his biggest songs – “Whiskey River,” “Still is Still Moving” and “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” were the only chestnuts delivered.
He turned the mic over to his son for a blistering version of “Texas Flood” and the family tribute “Fathers and Mothers.” Blessed with a second wind, Willie Nelson serenaded the host city with “Kansas City.” Several backing musicians from the previous bands came back out to help with a trio of gospel numbers that wove through “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw the Light” before ending bizarrely on “Roll Me Up,” a brand new Nelson song with the refrain “roll me up and smoke me when I die.” The subject was incongruous, but the music stayed in the same jubilant spirit.
Nelson’s herb of choice may not be a crop farmers can plant, but it was fitting end to a day focused on agriculture.