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October 2nd, 2006

BY BRADLEY BAMBARGER Star-Ledger Staff

Dave Matthews stands out among abundance of acts at Farm Aid concert

At first, Saturday's Farm Aid concert in Camden summoned memories of Live 8 in Philadelphia last summer -- memories of underwhelming music and not enough topical urgency on stage. If the stateside Live 8 concert, which aimed to raise awareness of global poverty, wasn't much more than a showbiz party, Farm Aid looked as if it might end up being like a high-end state-fair hootenanny, organic but anonymous. That was until Dave Matthews took the Tweeter Center spotlight early in the evening of the day-long show.

The singer not only riveted the capacity crowd of 25,000 with only his guitar as backup; he spoke to the cause at hand -- family farms and their benefits to our health and planet. He countered conventional wisdom with easy charm, showing that a musician can articulate issues and not fear turning people off. The 39-year-old Matthews -- a member of Farm Aid's board alongside founders Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young, who all performed later -- recalled that before he "wanted to be a fireman, I wanted to be a farmer. ... I even love that smell of manure you get through your car window in the country."

With Farm Aid in its 21st year, the organization's agenda has become less about rescuing family farmers from foreclosure than about helping to stoke the market for what they grow. The operation now dovetails with environmentalism and the organic, locally grown food movement. The Camden concert also brought several outreach events, including visits to urban schools by New Jersey farmers.

The crowd, especially its youngest segment, hung on Matthews' every word, as he called family farms "the foundation of the civilized world." Musically, too, Matthews focused the crowd's attention like no other act on the bill. For all the popularity of his band, he is more affecting when alone, the attractive grain in his voice ideally offset by just acoustic guitar. The audience anticipated the words to "Everyday" before Matthews got more than a few notes into the instrumental intro; when he took over, his falsetto gently keened the chorus, an ecstatic melody.

Matthews switched to electric guitar for "Some Devil," which runs on a darker, bluesy tension that one wishes were more prevalent in his songbook.

The earlier part of the day wasn't helped by spitting rain, the Tweeter shed's muddy acoustics and some run-of-the-mill sets. Worst was Gov't Mule, which trudged through wan Southern-rock clichés. The "Texican" blues-rock fusion of Los Lonely Boys always seems overrated, but they at least gave the party-starved crowd a well-timed shot of energy.

The afternoon's diversions included excellent veggie burgers brought in by Farm Aid (although most people avoided such fare in favor of the usual venue chow), as well as people in T-shirts that proclaimed "farmers kick ass" via a cartoon of a farmer literally kicking a mule. There was also the welcome political undertone to songs by alt-country intellectual and Farm Aid vet Steve Earle, who sang solo and with his wife, Allison Moorer.

Later, Moorer's sister, country-soul rebel Shelby Lynne, injected color into the gloomy afternoon with her bright orange bandana, Alabama drawl and such ironic finger-pointers as "You're the Man." That tune's jaunty honey eases the path of a couplet -- "somebody up there has been lining his pockets/ while the poor folks bleed from their eyeball sockets" -- that might have made even the hard-edged Earle twitch before he grinned.

First-generation rock'n' roller Jerry Lee Lewis, who just turned 71, may be a shadow of his former piano-pounding self, but he retains a potent mojo. Although both Nelson and Young appear on Lewis' great new album of duets, only Nelson teamed with him on stage -- unfortunately, for a ramshackle take on "Jambalaya." But Lewis rolled through a honky-tonk version of Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights, Big City" and he rocked "Great Balls of Fire," spurring all ages to shimmy in the aisles.

Mellencamp led his eight-piece band in a high-energy show slick enough for a casino. But his new patriotic song "Our Country" was so melodically challenged that it led him to sing flat in its chorus, and his bratty old hit "The Authority Song" should be retired, percussion-heavy makeover and all. But "Rain on the Scarecrow" (Farm Aid's initial theme song) had an edge to it, as did "Love and Happiness" -- which he dedicated to "all the people this administration has left behind with its policies."

Young was in a warm, serene mood, even if he seemed like an eccentric uncle when he encouraged parents to take their kids to "see vegetables." Several of his recent numbers are more like chants than songs, but the moon appeared as if bidden by the campfire romanticism of his early-'90s favorite "Harvest Moon." He brought Nelson out for the mono-chord vamp "Homegrown," one of the night's several joking allusions to the country singer's recent scrape with the law over certain herbal remedies.

Although justly considered a national treasure as a singer and songwriter, Nelson is underrated as a guitarist of jazzy rhythmic sophistication and flinty, inimitable tone (on the scarred acoustic that looks as old as the bible). The 73-year-old host sat in with acts all day, but he was really on fire for his own night-capping set, ripping solos like a country-punk Django Reinhardt. Even songs that Nelson and his band have played a thousand times -- "Good-Hearted Woman," etc. -- vibrated with life.

Veteran country duo the Calhoun Twins joined Nelson, claiming that Merle Haggard wanted them to "sing this song for you." They launched into "Okie from Muskogee," the audience immediately laughing at the line, "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee ..." But Nelson proved to be such a master of mind and matter that there were undoubtedly many in the audience thinking to themselves, "I'll have what he's smoking."

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