By Mabel Suen
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By Allison Babka
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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.