Words + Photos by Bobby Talamine
Like the hard working American farmers that are honored by this annual concert event, Farm Aid 2019 pressed on through the damp weather on Saturday, September 21st. Fighting the wind and occasional rainfall, the 30,000 plus crowd was let into Alpine Valley in East Troy Wisconsin to embark on listening to music from a who’s who of country and folk music. A who’s who that included performances by Wille Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews--the founders of the Farm Aid festival.
To show appreciation and support for American farmers, Farm Aid began with an opening prayer and dance from the Wisdom Indian Dancers and the Ho-Chunk Thundercloud Singers. This was followed by terrific, but brief, sets from Jamestown Revival, Ian Mellecamp, and Particle Kid.
Tanya Tucker was next with her short, down to earth country set. Tucker’s vocals were fresh and twangy and her ten gallon cowboy hat and outfit were the definition of "Country.” The crowd got on their feet for Tucker’s splendid rendition of her famous hit "Delta Dawn," and poignantly called attention to farmers’ plight with her song "Bidding America Goodbye.” Written in the realm of a foreclosure letter to a farmer, “Bidding America Goodbye” gave a harmonic voice to the struggles of American farmers, especially in this day and age.
The next performer was Yola, a force of nature with a dynamic vocal range. Hailing from the U.K. and a voice reminiscent of early ‘60’s soul, Yola’s currently getting well deserved attention here in the states. Her cover of Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was the showstopper of all showstoppers. She elevated John’s anthem through the roof of Alpine Valley with her upper register vocal intact.
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real had a grand old time onstage. Lukas was joined by his brother Micah Nelson and Nathaniel Rateliff onstage, along with Margo Price and Yola to sing a few songs.
The true star of Lukas Nelson’s set was Leon, the young son of Promise of the Real’s percussionist Tato Melgar. Strapped with a fender guitar, Leon busted out some moves during the set and helped the crowd have as much fun as he was having onstage.
No other performer on the line up was the true definition of a "Farm Aid Performer” than Margo Price. In 1985, the year of the first Farm Aid, Price's family lost their farm in Aledo, Illinois. This hardship gave inspiration to Price’s breakout album Midwest Farmer's Daughter.
A Farm Aid regular since the album’s debut, Price made it clear that this was her favorite gig of the year. Her set reflected this enthusiasm with a wonderful cover of Janis Joplin's "Move Over" and an uptempo performance of “Nowhere Fast,” with the band pushing on the gas pedals throughout the set.
Jamey Johnson took the stage, alongside special guest Randy Houser, and the two interjected fine and sincere vocals throughout. The persistent and windswept rain made it difficult to stay in one place and listen, but the crowd hunkered down and sought cover with plastic, blankets, and whatever else they could find. No matter, their song selection was sublime, and Johnson and Houser traded fiery vocals and guitar licks throughout their set.
Next, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats barn burned through their set. Hit after hit, the band was sweating from the first song onward. Farm Aid brought out the best in this soulful band and their set was very tight and in the groove. Rateliff flourished throughout each song, even throwing some James Brown dance moves with his feet on the slippery stage, grabbing the mic and tearing into "S.O.B.” and "You Worry Me" in particular. Definitely one of the highlights of Farm Aid 2019.
Bonnie Raitt, and her impeccable slide guitar front and center, reminisced on seeing Stevie Ray Vaughn’s last ever performance at Alpine Valley before his untimely death by helicopter crash. Raitt dedicated a solo acoustic cover of Skip James’s "Devil Got My Woman" to Stevie and fellow blues guitar artists. Raitt's set was a treasure of original and cover tunes, particularly the cover of the Talking Heads "Burning Down the House," which as Bonnie predicted, "blew the roof off this place!"
Luke Combs and his stalwart country band proceeded Bonnie with all of his hits, making the pavilion at Alpine Valley a downright beer swigging country dancing party. The relatability of Combs’s songs caused even the men in attendance to dance in their seats. His music was definitely smooth enough and catchy enough for country radio, and the Alpine Valley crowd certainly dug it.
Dave Matthews was joined by his acoustic companion Tim Reynolds, and the two blazed away during songs like "Ants Marching" and "So Damn Lucky." Free from the constraints of a large ensemble, Matthews and Reynolds let it rip on acoustic guitars throughout their set.
John Mellencamp had some mixing troubles during his set, which softened the sound of his vocals and the band, but that didn't stop the crowd from singing and dancing to "Scarecrow" and "Jack and Diane."
Neil Young took the stage with Lukas Nelson's band Promise of the Real, and Neil took time to vocalize his thoughts on the plight of America's farmers during his set. The crowd appreciated hearing Neil speak candidly about the importance of family farmers and how we need to take care of Mother Earth. Neil Young urged the crowd to buy from local farmers, to avoid processed foods, and to give a big middle finger to factory farms. Particularly, a giant “fuck you” to the food giant Monsanto, which drew a rousing and noisy applause from the audience. Fine moments in Neil's set abound- from the raucous and blistering "Rockin' in the Free World," along with the gentle "Harvest Moon," and plenty of good stuff in between.
At past Farm Aid events, Wille Nelson would introduce the opening acts, but not this year. The 86 year old Nelson, who's had some health issues as of late, saved his only appearance until the end.
Regardless of the recent health issues, Wille Nelson was in good form. Sprightly and all smiles, Nelson opened his set as always with "Whiskey River." Willie’s two sons Lukas and Micah Nelson joined him onstage to do renditions of "Still is Still Moving to Me," "It's All Going to Pot," and "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die."
Accompanied by his trusty guitar "Trigger," Willie Nelson ended Farm Aid with a spirited performance of “I’ll Fly Away” alongside Neil Young, Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Nathaniel Rateliff and Margo Price. Willie Nelson solidified the end of the night’s festivities by tossing his cowboy hat out into the crowd.
A wonderful and splendid time at Farm Aid 2019 was had by all.