September 30th, 2006
By RYAN CORMIER, The News Journal
CAMDEN, N.J. — It was July 1985 when Bob Dylan stood on stage at Live Aid in Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium and thought out loud, saying that some of the money raised that day should go to help family farmers pay their mortgages.
Two months later, Farm Aid was born, thanks to founders Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp.
Twenty-one years later, Farm Aid made a homecoming of sorts to the Philadelphia area Saturday, holding its annual fundraising concert at the Tweeter Center in front of a sold out crowd of 25,000.
As always, the show was made up of an eclectic mix of music, from the country rock of Steve Earle and the prolonged jams of Gov’t Mule to the reggae of Steel Pulse and the Tex-Mex sounds of Los Lonely Boys.
Even though the roster of acts throughout the day and early evening was strong, the majority of the crowd were there for four of the most famous members of Farm Aid’s board of directors: Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, who joined the board in 2001.
But just before they took the stage Saturday night, the first truly exciting performance of the day came at the hands of one of the oldest performers: rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis, who turned 71 Friday.
Even though he played for less than 20 minutes – and showed that his age has clearly caught up with him – Lewis thrilled the crowd. The sun was setting when the Killer appeared on stage, gingerly walking over to his piano to a standing ovation before rattling off “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Bright Lights, Big City” before Nelson came on stage for a ramshackle take of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (On the Bayou).”
Lewis, who even played his piano with his foot at one point, closed out his set with the obligatory “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” – hitting his trademark, “Woo!” – and “Great Balls of Fire.”
Younger fans especially roared a few minutes later when an unshaven Dave Matthews took the stage alone with an acoustic guitar.
“Before I wanted to be a fireman, I wanted to be a farmer,” said Matthews, who has his own farm in Virginia. He went on to talk in detail about cow manure before admitting, “I talk too much when I’m nervous.”
Matthews played a fan-pleasing, singalong-instigating mix of songs during his 45 minutes on stage, including “Everyday,” “Some Devil,” “Stay or Leave,” “Gravedigger,” “Save Me,” “Crush” and “So Damn Lucky.” He also played a sweet ode to his sister Jane that he has not yet recorded, appropriately titled “Sister.”
Later in the night, as temperatures dipped below 60 degrees, Young and his band brought back the country feel, launching into “Field of Opportunity” off 1978’s “Comes A Time.”
He then invited Nelson on stage and it didn’t take Young long to hint at Nelson’s recent marijuana arrest.
Before an extended jam on “Homegrown,” Young broke out the best line of the night:
“It’s a song that probably should have been written with him in mind. It would have been a much longer song.”
Young then turned to his newer material with an impassioned “After the Garden,” from this year’s protest album, “Living With War,” before tackling a cover of Ian & Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds” with help from his wife, Pegi. He rounded out his set with “Harvest Moon” and “Human Highway.”
His 35-minute performance came eight hours into the marathon concert, which is the largest fundraiser for Farm Aid, the nonprofit group dedicated to helping family farmers that has raised nearly $29 million since its inception.
Earlier in the afternoon, Steve Earle and Allison Moorer shared a 30-minute acoustic set, splitting time evenly as Earle struggled with his monitor, complaining that he wasn’t able to hear himself.
Earle, who played his first Farm Aid 20 years ago, opened solo with “Copperhead Road” and the Farm Aid-inspired “The Rain Came Down,” the bleak tale of a family farmer that Earle wrote in 1987.
The show then became a family affair as Moorer came on stage with her sister Shelby Lynne to back up Earle on a slowed-down version of “The Mountain.” Earle let the crowd know Moorer is his wife by cracking, “I’m married to the big one.”
Not surprisingly, Earle, an outspoken war critic, closed out the subdued set with his take on Pete Seeger’s antiwar song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
By 4:30 p.m., the Tweeter Center’s lawn was filled with fans, dancing for the first time when Steel Pulse ended their performance with a reggae version of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.”
They were followed by the return of Lynne, who arrived for her performance dressed as if she was right off the farm, wearing jeans, a t-shirt and an orange bandanna, diving straight into “10 Rocks,” a song off her 2003 album “Identity Crisis,” which set her on her current course of American roots music, leaving traditional country behind. She closed her set by thanking family farmers before announcing who she’d support in 2008, saying, “Willie Nelson for president.”
It was 5:30 p.m. when the first honest-to-goodness rock act took the stage. Gov’t Mule took no time laying down their Southern rock-jam band sound. Warren Haynes impressed the crowd with his recognizable guitar work on “Bad Little Doggie” and “Beautifully Broken.”
But the set really took off when Haynes and the band played “Mr. High & Mighty,” the title track off the band’s new album, with the song’s monster riff seemingly waking the crowd after a gray afternoon of quieter, acoustic sets that were mostly forgettable.
Haynes told the crowd that journalists had been asking him backstage if the song was about President Bush. He coyly told the crowd that he answered, “No, not exclusively.”
Their set was followed by Los Lonely Boys, who served up the first megahit of the night with their faithful version of “Heaven,” originally recorded by the band in Nelson’s Pedernales Recording Studio in Austin.
Nelson joined the band on stage for their final song, “Outlaws,” a collaboration with Nelson from their new album “Sacred.” Nelson smiled as he sang the final verse with the playful opening line, “I’ve always made a living making music with my friends out on the road again.”