Farm Aid 2019 Review: Willie Nelson, Neil Young and friends keep on message, and in the music
It was a long, sometimes rainy day at Alpine Valley Music Theatre on Saturday, but the stellar lineup for Farm Aid 2019 still brought plenty of warmth and star power to the East Troy amphitheater.
Farm Aid's second trip to Wisconsin in 34 years (last time was in 2010, at Miller Park) was designed to bring the focus to the plight of the state's dairy farmers.
It also was about the music. Here's what the 30,000 or so who came to Alpine got to hear at the daylong concert.
Willie Nelson & Family
At past Farm Aid concerts, Willie Nelson used to pop up for lots of sets. But Saturday, the 86-year-old Nelson, who had to cancel some shows last month for health reasons, saved his lone appearance for the end.
Nelson was in good form, his set starting as it often does, with solid renditions of “Whiskey River” and “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” followed later by a festive one-two punch of “It’s All Going to Pot” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
Nelson really lit up trading blues licks on his battered acoustic guitar Trigger with his electric-guitar-strumming son Lukas. And 12 hours of music came to a spirited end with several stars of the day — Neil Young, Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Margo Price (and her baby) — singing “I’ll Fly Away” together, and Nelson giving his cowboy hat a heck of a toss into the crowd.
Neil Young & Promise of the Real
Sets fell behind schedule all day, but the delay was significant for Neil Young, who took the stage with Lukas Nelson’s band Promise of the Real 52 minutes later than planned.
Young also was the most talkative of Farm Aid's performers, but the crowd appreciated Young speaking about their issues, as he talked of family farmers rejuvenating the Earth and encouraged shoppers to buy from farmers markets and avoid processed foods from big-box stores, and the farmers embraced the message and chorus of “Homegrown." And “Rockin’ in the Free World” was Farm Aid’s finest moment — guitar-blazing, drums-pummeling, face-melting chaos, as good rock should be — led by a snarling, screaming Young, with visceral shredding to match.
When John Mellencamp last played Farm Aid in Wisconsin, at Miller Park in 2010, he was the day’s MVP, with people dancing on top of the Brewers dugout for his hits-stuffed set.
There wasn’t as much dancing this time out, not even during a classic like “Small Town,” because the muddiest mix of the day dampened the set more than any of the rain did earlier. When Mellencamp's vocals did rise above the band, his voice was significantly more scorched compared to a tour kickoff in Milwaukee in February.
It did convey the outrage of oppressed farmers' anthem "Rain on the Scarecrow." And there were no sound issues when the band left Mellencamp alone to play “Jack & Diane” on acoustic guitar, with the crowd sweetly joining in on the chorus (and playfully getting chastised for skipping a verse).
Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds
Dave Matthews watched his Farm Aid set stolen out from under him — and he couldn’t have seemed happier.
He was joined by Dave Matthews Band guitarist Tim Reynolds for a two-man acoustic set, and with the full group off for the night, Reynolds could really let his acoustic guitar fly. He didn’t just fill out songs like “Ants Marching” and “So Damn Lucky” with layers and layers of dazzling notes. He accomplished things on that acoustic guitar that seemed impossible, time and again, swiftly slipping from twangy bluegrass to head-spinning helicopter strikes, the notes scaling at the end of “Marching” to implausibly high pitch squeals, with seemingly no end to the ascent.
At one point, Matthews jokingly imitated Reynolds' versatility, still clearly dazzled after all their years performing together. If Matthews' elastic voice could be likened to taffy, Reynolds’ guitar playing was pure liquid.
Alpine Valley Music Theatre — long heralded as one of the country’s most beautiful amphitheaters — is also the site of a tragic chapter in rock history: the Aug. 27, 1990, helicopter crash that killed Stevie Ray Vaughan, three members of Eric Clapton’s team and a pilot.
During her Farm Aid set, Raitt reminisced about watching Vaughan play, and dedicated an astounding solo acoustic cover of Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” to Vaughan and other seminal blues artists.
Raitt and the band also covered “I Believe I’m in Love With You” from the Fabulous Thunderbirds, led by Stevie’s brother Jimmie. And she dedicated a touching version of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” to any oppressed women watching at Alpine and on the live stream.
“We’re going to blow the roof off the place,” Raitt promised near set’s end, before dialing back expectations with a smile. “Well, I don’t know about that, but we’re gonna give it a good licking.”
Raitt and the band busted out the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” climaxing with Raitt’s delicious blues guitar interpretations of Milwaukee native Jerry Harrison’s trippy synths. Stevie Ray would approve.
There was no hotter star at Farm Aid 2019 — and practically in country music — than Luke Combs. His album “This One’s for You” is still the top-selling country album of 2019, two years after it came out. And the new album just around the corner, November’s “What You See Is What You Get,” is going to make him an even bigger star.
But all that success hasn’t gone to his head. Frequently and poignantly recalling his scrappy Nashville origins Saturday, and sincerely talking about feeling unworthy to be playing Farm Aid with such accomplished artists, Combs was an everyman through and through. His flashiest stage move was a frequent trick at any frat party, when he shotgunned a can of Miller Lite.
But it’s that relatability, and the relatability of his songs, that have made Combs such a force. From the sunny kiss-off “When It Rains It Pours,” to the smitten ballad “Beautiful Crazy,” Combs' songs hit that difficult to reach sweet spot. There’s a crackle to his voice, and sharp, emotional storytelling in his lyrics, that country traditionalists can admire, and the music is just smooth enough, and certainly catchy enough, to dominate country radio.
Combs may be justifiably awed to be playing Farm Aid with the likes of Willie Nelson. But at the rate he’s going, it’s easy to imagine some hot shot country newcomer being awed to share a stage with him someday.
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
It wasn’t quite nighttime when Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats took the Farm Aid stage — but they were certainly sweating.
The soul band is really in its element when it’s playing a packed festival like this one, quickly hooking thousands, clear fans and new listeners alike, with horn-swinging, toe-tapping songs like “S.O.B.” and “You Worry Me.”
Rateliff’s voice — equal parts sand and honey — and soft-shoe showmanship were just gravy.
As the first surprise guest at Farm Aid 2019, Randy Houser appeared alongside Jamey Johnson.
The two country troubadours traded fiery vocals and smoking guitar licks for “Lead Me Home” and Houser’s “Evangeline.” There was a bluesy, brassy band behind them, so beyond the star power the songs sounded sublime, with Tanya Tucker, who performed earlier in the day, smartly camping out on the edge of the stage to watch it all.
It was raining harder than at any point during the afternoon for Johnson’s set — and the hill had yet to be so packed.
Margo Price can probably connect with Farm Aid deeper than any other artist on the bill.
In 1985, the year of the first Farm Aid, Price’s family lost their family farm in Aledo, Ill., hence the name of the country artist's breakout 2016 album “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.”
A Farm Aid regular since then, Price said Saturday that Farm Aid is her favorite gig of the year, and that really showed onstage, from a barn-burning cover of Janis Joplin’s “Move Over,” to Price and the band slamming their feet on the gas for a heart-racing, uptempo take on her tune “Nowhere Fast.”
She also previewed a mournful, quietly devastating new song, “Long Live the King,” a tribute to incredible leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lennon who suffered tragic deaths. Expect it on the forthcoming album, which, like the past two, and based on that new song, is bound to receive universal acclaim.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
Lukas Nelson and Promise of The Real made the first guest performance of the day with his brother Micah’s band Particle Kid. For his own set, several acts paid it forward, with Micah, Margo Price, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, and Yola all coming out for the simmering “Find Yourself,” culminating with Yola and Nelson trading scintillating vocal runs over purring organ courtesy of Wauwatosa native Logan Metz.
Leon, the son of Promise of the Real percussionist Tato Melgar, also shared the stage, as he had earlier in the day with Micah's band. But this time he was strapped to a real guitar twice as big as he was.
No one at Farm Aid sang more fabulously than Yola.
The folk artist out of the U.K. is getting a lot of buzz, and she showed why Saturday, with a voice like a lost relic from golden soul records of the early '60s for splendid songs “Faraway Look” and the title track from this year’s breakthrough album “Walk Through Fire.”
But the real showstopper was a glorious cover of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” If you’re of the mindset that you can’t really improve a classic, Yola’s performance would make you reconsider.
The last Farm Aid Tanya Tucker played was the first Farm Aid in 1985, prompting the country singer to ask at Alpine Valley on Saturday what took so long to be invited back.
She was joking, but, seriously, Farm Aid, it’s a good question — given that her triumphant set Saturday was one of the day’s best.
To be fair, Tucker has been relatively dormant musically; she released her first album of original songs in 17 years, “While I’m Livin’,” last month. Co-produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings, “While I'm Livin’” is excellent old-school country, and singles “Hard Luck” and “The Wheels of Laredo” translated terrifically live, with the 61-year-old, pink-haired Tucker strutting in knee-high cowboy boots and showcasing the gripping, gritty twang in her voice.
Her 1972 hit “Delta Dawn” triggered the day’s first singalong, but it was her 1991 tune “Bidding America Goodbye,” written as a foreclosure letter to a farmer, that was the most poignant.
“The falling price of wheat’s not our concern, and the cost of operation may well be rising,” Tucker sang solemnly. “But the fact is you lose more than you earn.” Singing of an auction of the land, Tucker changed the lyrics to “cold gray Wisconsin sky.”
How shameful that 28 years later, as the dairy farm crisis continues in Wisconsin with little relief in sight, that those lyrics are still so relevant.
Country hitmakers Brothers Osborne had to bow out of their first Farm Aid due to “personal reasons,” but Austin, Texas-based folk rockers Jamestown Revival were a fine fill-in, with traces of the Everly Brothers’ heavenly harmonies for “California” and “Killing You, Killing Me.”
Ian Mellencamp and Particle Kid
John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson helped put together the first Farm Aid in 1985, and have been with it since. Saturday, their nephew and son respectively, Ian Mellencamp and Micah Nelson (stage name Particle Kid), occupied the first slots.
Ian Mellencamp offered words of hope singing about disappearing walls and wanting peace with his solo set. Particle Kid was far less optimistic, bringing out his brother Lukas Nelson’s band Promise of the Real for the stoner-rock jam “Everything Is (Expletive).”
The star of the set, though, was a bewildered little boy standing in the middle of the stage who occasionally busted out rock-star leaps, air guitar and devil horns.
Piet also talks concerts, local music and more on "TAP'd In" with Jordan Lee. Hear it at 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9), or wherever you get your podcasts.