By Jeremy Essig
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By Hans Morgenstern
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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.