Farm Aid Live: Willie Nelson saves it all for the finale; Neil Young makes up for lost time

Rick Barrett Piet Levy
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Bonnie Raitt, Luke Combs and 11 other acts converge on Alpine Valley Music Theater on Saturday. They're here to draw awareness to the plight of Wisconsin dairy farmers and play some music. 

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Willie Nelson (and loads of guests) bring it all home 

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.”

But Willie really lit up trading blues licks on his battered acoustic guitar Trigger with his electric-guitar-strumming son Lukas. And 12-plus hours of music came to a spirited end Saturday 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, an hour behind schedule, stays on message 

Neil Young performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley  Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. Young co-founded Farm Aid 34 years ago with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp.

Sets fell behind schedule all day at Farm Aid, but the delay was really 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 Saturday, but the crowd appreciated Young speaking of 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. 

John Mellencamp suffers from muddy mix 

John Mellencamp performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. Mellencamp founded Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in 1985.

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 initially 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 accidentally skipping a verse).

Dave Matthews takes the stage, Tim Reynolds steals the spotlight 

Dave Matthews, right, and Tim Reynolds perform at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

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.

Bonnie Raitt pays tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan  

Bonnie Raitt performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

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 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.

Southern Wisconsin is under a flash flood watch

A flash flood watch is set to take effect Saturday evening for southern Wisconsin as several rounds of showers and thunderstorms roll through the area.

All counties from the Minnesota border east to Milwaukee and south to Kenosha are under the watch, which is in effect from 7 p.m. Saturday through late Sunday night. That includes East Troy and Alpine Valley Music Theater. 

Luke Combs ushers in the A-listers 

Country star Luke Combs performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

There’s 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 riles 'em up 

Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats  perform at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

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.

First surprise guest of the night: Jamey Johnson brings out Randy Houser 

Country singer Jamey Johnson (with Randy Houser in the background) performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

We have our first surprise guest at Farm Aid 2019, with Randy Houser appearing during Jamey Johnson's set.

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 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, who grew up on a farm, makes her mark on stage 

Margo Price performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley  Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

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 every 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. 

Using games to bring home the hard truths of farming 

To bring home the realities of farming to an urban audience, the University of Wisconsin-Extension has a game in Farm Aid’s Home Grown Village in which participants can pick a difficult farm situation and then guess the best solution. 

These are real-life scenarios, said Leigh Presley, a UW-Extension agriculture educator. 

“A lot of times the solutions aren’t all that great of choices, but we try to engage people and put them in the farmer’s shoes, sometimes in some pretty dire circumstances,” Presley said.

The National Family Farm Coalition also has a game in the Home Grown Village in which participants can guess how much a farmer receives from something like a pound of cheese in the grocery store.

Many people are surprised by how little it is, said NFFC member Bruce Drinkman, a dairy farmer from Dunn County.

“Then they understand why farmers are going broke,” he said. 

Journal Sentinel, Rick Barrett get a shout-out from the stage 

After Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real's performance, one of the Farm Aid emcees gave a shout-out to the Journal Sentinel: 

"Be sure to visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel cafe in the expo center. You can talk with reporter Rick Barrett — you may be familiar, he's been reporting on the dairy crisis all year. You can dive into the interactive content and learn more about Wisconsin dairy farmers, and while you're there, get a coffee — with lots of cream. Yes, of course, Wisconsin."  

Lukas Nelson brings out a lot of friends on stage, and a kid

Lukas Nelson, and his band Promise of the Real are joined onstage by the Night Sweats, far left, Margo Price and Yola, and Nathaniel Rateliff, far right (in white overshirt) at Farm Aid 2019 on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

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 and 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.

And the kid from the Particle Kid set (see below) — Leon, the son of Promise of the Real percussionist Tato Melgar — was back onstage, except this time he was strapped to a real guitar twice as big as he was.

Time constraints prompted Nelson to unplug just as the band was heating up, but you can catch a much longer set at Turner Hall Ballroom Tuesday.

English singer Yola shows she’s one to watch 

English singer-songwriter Yola performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. It was the second time Farm Aid is taking place in Wisconsin in the 34-year-old nonprofit's history, and the first Farm Aid performance for Yola, who released her first solo album earlier this year.

No one at Farm Aid will sing more fabulously than Yola.

The folk artist out of the U.K. is getting a lot of buzz, and she quickly showed why Saturday, with a resplendent voice like a lost relic from golden soul records from 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 Saturday would make you reconsider.

Family Farm Defenders criticize wasteful production 

Family Farm Defenders, a Madison based group focused on preserving small family farms, was out in full force at Farm Aid.

At their display, in the festival’s Home Grown Village, farmer Randy Jasper talked about how wasteful it was to transport some food items thousands of miles.

He pointed to a bottle of flavored water, from Fiji, as an example.

“It traveled 7,200 miles to get here. That’s just ridiculous,” he said.

Playing her first Farm Aid in 34 years, Tanya Tucker in terrific form 

Tanya Tucker performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley  Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. It was Tucker's first appearance at Farm Aid since 1985 - the first Farm Aid concert.

The last Farm Aid Tanya Tucker played was the first Farm Aid in 1985, prompting the country singer to ask at Alpine Valley Saturday what took so long to be invited back. 

She was joking, but, seriously, Farm Aid, it’s a good question — given the triumphant set Saturday that’ll easily be one of the day’s best.

To be fair, Tucker has been relatively dormant musically in the last two decades, releasing 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. 

Jamestown Revival plays in a light rain 

Spectators on the hill portion of Alpine Valley Music Theatre sit through a light rain shower while early acts perform at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in East Troy, Wis. It was Farm Aid's second appearance in Wisconsin; the benefit concert designed to raise awareness of and support for family farming was held at Milwaukee's Miller Park in 2010.

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.”

The weather, meanwhile, was hardly like California, but the light rain was a small nuisance and started to let up toward the end of Jamestown Revival's set.

The next generation takes the Farm Aid stage

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. 

The boy, Leon, son of Promise of the Real percussionist Tato Melgar, turned up during his dad's band's set later on, too. 

Margo Price opens the concert with a prayer 

Willie Nelson typically introduces Farm Aid each year, but acclaimed country artist Margo Price had the honors Saturday.

She may not have brought the same boost of star power as the legend at the top of the bill, but she set the mood with a lovingly sung “Our Father,” accompanied by a performance from a member of the Wisdom Indian Dancers. Members of the Ho-Chunk Thundercloud Singers also offered a Native American prayer and song. 

Watch Farm Aid 2019 streaming online

If you're not there to see Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Bonnie Raitt, Luke Combs and the other 11 acts on the bill, you can still watch the show — most of it, anyway. 

Starting at 2 p.m. Central Time, Farm Aid is streaming at farmaid.org, and on Farm Aid's YouTube channel (see above). It's also being carried on Nelson's Sirius XM station Willie's Roadhouse, on Channel 59. And AXS TV will broadcast Farm Aid live beginning at 6:30 p.m.  

Farm Aid press conference: Willie Nelson, Neil Young 

“These are the folks who feed us, who bring us good food,” music legend and Farm Aid president Willie Nelson said at the press conference kicking off the event late Saturday morning. “If we can help them in any way, we will.”

Farm Aid officials, farmers and the nonprofit's all-star founder-performers took part in the press conference, with the music stars making often-emotional pitches to support family farms and farmers. 

Neil Young called for federal legislation that requires sustainable farming practices for all, and spoke about what brought Farm Aid to Wisconsin in the first place: the plight of the state's dairy farms. 

“I hope we reverse the trend in Wisconsin, and next year have a little bit more dairy farms than this year,” Young said. 

Hours before the music, traffic a mess

People are making their way into Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy for Farm Aid 2019. Two hours before showtime, traffic was already backed up significantly.

Music doesn’t start at Farm Aid until 12:45 p.m., but there was already bad traffic two hours before showtime. 

Before 11 a.m., the last two-mile stretch on County Road D into the lots at Alpine Valley in East Troy took more than a half-hour to drive. The lots hadn’t just opened either; they’d been open since 9 a.m. 

Traffic into and out of Alpine has always been a bear — storms turned a short drive into Alpine into an hourlong slog in July ahead of a sold-out Jimmy Buffett show.

Farm Aid is also sold out, with about 30,000 expected to attend. But to see such significant traffic delays so early is a stark reminder that you’re going to want to leave as early as possible so you’re not stuck in your car as the music plays.

You'll want to bring a poncho because it looks like rain

Rain, some possibly heavy, may fall across portions of southern Wisconsin during the next couple of days, forecasters say, and anyone planning to attend Farm Aid in East Troy will want to keep their rain gear handy.  

The better rain chances don't arrive until Saturday night, although scattered rain showers will be possible during the day. 

On the bright side, rain didn't stop Woodstock.

What you need to know before the festival 

You can read our full guide on what you need to know with details on the lineup, tips on parking and more. The event is nearly sold out, so that means traffic and parking issues. Get there early and consider carpooling. 

The musical acts start at 12:45 p.m. with the Ho-Chunk Thundercloud Singers and Wisdom Indian Dancers. Headlining acts don't go onstage until later. 

There will be food and drink vendors at the venue, but be sure to bring some peanut butter to donate to Hunger Task Force. 

And don't forget about the farmers. They are the reason Farm Aid is in Wisconsin this year. Dairy herds and prices for milk are down 40% since 2010, due to overproduction and failing export markets. Wisconsin has led the nation in farm bankruptcies for three years in a row, and dairy farms are closing at an unprecedented rate in Wisconsin, with more than 1,000 shutting down since 2018.

While you're at the festival, hit up Farm Aid's Homegrown Village, open from noon to 5:30 p.m. to explore exhibits and talk to Wisconsin farmers. 

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Joe Taschler, Sophie Carson and Lainey Seyler of Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.