Farm Aid Grows Stronger

Phish - Steve Earle - Neil Young

New World Music Theatre - Tinley Park

October 3, 1998

First Appeared in The Music Box, November 1998, Volume 5, #11

Written by John Metzger

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Thirteen years ago, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp organized the first benefit concert to help America's farming families cope with rampant mortgage foreclosures. Sadly, the organization dubbed Farm Aid is needed even more today than it was back then. The family farmer has been rapidly disappearing, and those who survived Reaganomics are now suffering from the proliferation of factory farms. Worse still, many politicians are still in denial as to just how necessary the vitality of family farms is to this country, and some are just beginning to realize that the government needs to do something to help. I suppose this is progress, but it's frustratingly slow and frighteningly behind the times.

For the second year in a row, Farm Aid held its annual benefit concert at the New World Music Monstrosity in Tinley Park, Illinois, and for the second year in a row, the place was packed. Unfortunately, for those in attendance for the first half of the show, the sound was absolutely horrendous even for the World. It didn't matter who was on stage, everything came through the sound system like a giant wall of sonically distorted mush, making it impossible to understand a word that was spoken or sung on stage. Moving to a new location helped only to make the mush louder. Thank goodness most of the show was broadcast (from a soundboard feed) live on CMT, and rebroadcast again the next day. It helped shed some light onto the huge portions of the show that were difficult to hear. (Of course, CMT blew it when the station cut Phish's performance during the rebroadcast and didn't adjust its schedule to capture the 90-minutes of music that opened the show).

Despite the sound nightmare, Farm Aid '98 was still an unbelievable concert with the most solid line-up of artists to pass through Chicago in the past decade. It all began as Willie Nelson took the stage for a 30-minute set of laid-back country music. Nelson used this portion of the show to perform some of his best-known songs, such as Crazy and Night Life.

A series of country acts, each performing a short 10-minute set, followed. The best of these was David Allan Coe who was downright hilarious in his opening autobiographical number. Nelson concluded this opening set by returning to the stage to perform a cover of Sleepy John Estes' 1930 classic Milk Cow Blues and Townes Van Zandt's Pancho and Lefty.

Hootie and the Blowfish kicked off the televised portion of the show with a tight set of catchy pop gems. The sound quality in the venue took a lot away from the band's performances. In fact, the sound was so pitiful that watching the video produced a dramatically different interpretation of the group's set, which was surprisingly fresh given the number of times it has performed its songs. Nelson joined the band, contributing his tender guitar picking to Let Her Cry, and Paul Shaffer added a swirling organ accompaniment to I Will Wait. Darius Rucker's voice is stronger than ever and he filled the ensemble's songs with spiritual emotion.

One of the day's most anticipated events was the pairing of Steve Earle with the legendary Del McCoury Band. They are currently working on an album titled The Mountain that is expected to be released in February, and if their set at Farm Aid is any indication, it should be an incredible disc. The real DMB provided the perfect accompaniment to Earle's roots-rock songs. In particular, Rob McCoury's stellar banjo picking and Ron McCoury's blazing mandolin playing were given plenty of opportunity to shine as the band felt quite at home covering Earle's songs and turning them into classic bluegrass numbers.

The only person who could possibly follow this pairing was another legend Brian Wilson. His surf-pop tunes provided quite a contrast from the bluegrass outings of Earle and the DMB, and the transition between musical styles was a bit jarring. The presence of Chicago-radio DJ Steve Dahl singing backing vocals on Do It Again was also quite disturbing. Wilson looked a bit unnerved, perhaps due to his infrequent performances and the size of the crowd that had gathered by the time he took the stage. Nevertheless, he delivered a set that was surprisingly filled with The Beach Boys' classics, such as California Girls, Surfin' U.S.A., and In My Room. Nelson even joined Wilson and sang the lead vocals on a exquisite Warmth of the Sun. Perhaps the best song of the set was Lay Down Burden, which was from Wilson's latest release Imagination and was written for his brother Carl.

Next, Wilco took the stage, putting together a tight, energetic set of its unique brand of country-rock. The group's driving intensity moved many of the Woody Guthrie songs like Christ for President far beyond the sterile interpretations contained on Mermaid Avenue. Jay Bennett pushed each song to its limit as he alternated between piano and electric guitar. Jeff Tweedy incorporated a southern accent into his vocals as he snarled the lyrics with passionate conviction.

Martina McBride followed, and although she had a wonderfully powerful and beautiful voice, her song arrangements left a lot to be desired. Her lengthy set was a rather tedious assault of standard Nashville-based country fare.

Following McBride, Nelson once again took the stage this time with a band that included a pair of Latin drummers and guitarist Daniel Lanois, who produced Nelson's recent album Teatro. This set proved to be one of the best of the day, as the percussionists infused the songs with a bubbling undercurrent that helped to lift the desperation in Nelson's voice and lyrics.

Nelson's set was perfectly constructed and crafted to create a mood and to tell a story. I Never Cared for You kicked things off with the initial frustration and denial of a broken love affair. Nelson slipped farther into a desperate loneliness in Darkness on the Face of the Earth before destroying his world and crying out for help in Somebody Pick Up My Pieces. The set culminated with a monstrous rendition of Lanois' The Maker as Nelson's gentle acoustic-picking gave way to thunderous bursts of electricity from Lanois' guitar.

John Mellencamp took the stage next with a huge backing band. He paced back and forth with a cordless microphone covering most of his big hits, including Jack and Diane, Pink Houses, and Hurts So Good. The highlight of his set was his 1985 masterpiece Rain on the Scarecrow, which deals with the mortgage foreclosures of the '80s. A passionate delivery from Mellencamp paired with furious assault of electric guitar, fiddle, organ, and percussion brought life to the anger in his lyrics.

Neil Young followed, rendering a stunning solo acoustic set, complete with pleas for financial aid from the home viewing audience. After the Gold Rush and Old Man were truly haunting, while Powderfinger allowed an overwhelming and furious intensity to boil just beneath the song's tender surface. Throughout his set, Young turned his outrage into an all-out acoustic assault, forcing the audience to feel his passionate conviction in his stance to help the American farming family.

Phish closed the show with an absolutely amazing and inspired set. The group certainly changed the laid-back pace of the day as they blasted into the funky rhythms of Birds of a Feather and Farmhouse. Runaway Jim just took things to whole other level. The band was in synch, and it stretched the song to its limit, climaxing with a total meltdown that brought Young back to the stage. A mind-blowing, 22-minute Down by the River ensued as Young and Trey Anastasio locked into a feisty guitar duel. The ensemble was prodded by Young who just wouldn't let them quit, although it eventually succumbed as the musicians relegated themselves to pure exhaustion.

Nelson returned to the stage for a final run of songs including a tender Moonlight in Vermont and the uplifting pairing of Will the Circle be Unbroken? and Amazing Grace. It brought the day-long event to an optimistic finale.

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Each year, Farm Aid breathes new life into our family farms. We can only hope that one day soon our government will wake up and do the same. In the meantime, you can help by calling 1-800-FARM-AID or by sending a donation to:

Farm Aid
P.O. Box 228
Champaign, IL 61824

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Farm Aid - Vol. 1 - Live is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!

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Copyright 1998 The Music Box