As he took the stage for the festival-closing set, Willie Nelson was introduced over the loudspeaker as the "President of Farm Aid." Sure enough, he is the president of the board of directors. But 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 20 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 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 it 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 (who had performed earlier in the day) 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 band mates 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 big-wigs 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.
Setlist: 1. "Whiskey River" 2. "Shoeshine Man" 3. "Funny How Time Slips Away" 4. "Crazy" 5. "Night Life" 6. "Down Yonder" 7. "Me & Paul" 8. "Texas Flood" (sung by Lukas Nelson) 9. "Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys" 10. "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" 11. "On the Road Again" 12. "Superman" 13. "Always on My Mind" 14. "You Asked Me To" (with Billy Joe Shaver) 15. "Georgia on a Fast Train" (with Billy Joe Shaver)
All-Star Jam 16. "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" 17. "Amazing Grace" 18. "On the Bayou" 19. "Move It On Over" 20. "I Saw the Light"
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