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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)


Neil Young
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)


Willie Nelson
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.

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