Chicago’s Northerly Island was the location for Farm Aid’s 30th anniversary festival on September 19, 2015 and it was glorious. The clouds parted and the rain stopped for a picture perfect day next to Lake Michigan for all to enjoy. The year’s Farm Aid provided one of the most diverse and talented music lineups to date. There was something for everyone all 26,000 fans!
The festivities started with a press conference consisting of the board and some local farmers to discuss this year’s progress and continued challenges facing the local farmer. There has been a lot of progress made over the last 30 years, but there is much work to be done to keep farmers thriving. More of this will be discussed in a separate press conference article. The board is Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews.
The show started with Willie Nelson singing the Lord’s Prayer and turning the stage over the Blackwood Quartet singing some gospel favorites. This led into rocker, Ian Mellencamp and his band. Ian is John Mellencamp’s nephew. Ian is a former fashion model turned rocker. It was obvious he has been taking lessons from his uncle during his short set. Ian is an energetic, solid performer and it will be interesting to see which musical path he will take in the future.
Holly Williams followed Ian’s famous family tradition. She is the grand daughter of Hank Williams. She is not old enough to remember her grand father, but does show a physical resemblance and she displayed her outstanding song writing talent. Her songs were more complex than her dad’s, but just as heart breaking. The songs she selected for this set were maybe too sad for a festival like this.
Kacey Musgraves promoted her new album, Pageant Material, during her laid-back set. She wore a blue prom dress and the band was decked out in pink suits. Many of the songs were very sad until she burst into the old Nancy Sinatra song, “These Boots Were Made For Walking.” That got the crowd out of their seats and you actually saw Kacey smile and have fun.
Lukas Nelson and The Promise Of The Real delivered several times during the festival, both by themselves, with Neil Young and with dad, Willie Nelson. Lukas performed as a consummate rock, blues guitarist that is typical for him. The band is spot on as well. Lukas finished the set with his “Lukas Leap!” Lukas’ brother Micah Nelson’s band Insects vs Robots also had a short set at the beginning. Their music is very eclectic and creative.
Jamey Johnson made a return appearance to Farm Aid. His set was very simple and effective this year without his usual band. Highlights were his rendition of Hank, Jr.’s “Wild and Blue” and a soulful, slow version of “This Land Is Your Land.” His baritone voice carried the song to another dimension.
This was Jack Johnson’s third appearance at Farm Aid. His laid back set included many of his past hits, plus a stoner song at the end warning about the power of Willie’s weed. Jack is an avid supporter of Farm Aid.
Mavis Staples and her band took the stage and the total mood of the festival changed for the rest of the day. Mavis shouted, “Welcome to Chicago and to Farm Aid!” Everyone was out of their seats, clapping and dancing to the youngest Staple singer’s tunes. There was no doubt that Mavis singing “I’ll Take You There” would do just that.
From Mavis, Imagine Dragons took that energy and multiplied it by ten. Front man, Dan Reynolds, immediately leapt from the stage and headed for the audience. They did not have their runway, so Dan improvised and went beyond the pit into the crowd. Their hour long set mimicked their touring show as much as time would allow.
John Mellencamp brought his stellar band and started his set with some Chicago blues! His rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passway” had the crowd dancing. Many of his past hits are about middle America and fit perfectly into the theme of Farm Aid. The set was a crowd pleaser from start to finish.
Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds provided an acoustic set worthy of a palace of kings. That may be slightly overstated, but true nonetheless. Tim Reynolds guitar plays seems to get better every year, if that is possible. The set showcases Dave Matthews’ songwriting impeccably. There was only one distraction during the beginning of the set. That was a spider and a spider web that was hitting Dave’s face as he was singing. Dave continued on and finally it was gone. Distractions aside the set was dope!
Neil Young and Promise of the Real followed with a rocking set that was a sample of their ongoing “Monsanto Years” tour. It was obvious that the band was having fun dueling with their guitars. The first three songs were directly from the Monsanto album. Unlike previous years at Farm Aid, Neil spent little time speaking about problems facing farmers and the planet. He let the songs speak instead. “Alabama” was the biggest surprise song of the set due to its condescending message. Young has not performed the song live since the seventies. All of the songs delivered a message. Neil with Promise of the Real will continue their tour in October.
Board president Willie Nelson performed the final set of the night. Farm Aid of years past often found Willie sitting in with many of the acts during the day. This tradition seems to be gone now. 83 years has started to take its toll on Willie. He appeared somewhat frail, but still picked ‘Trigger,’ his guitar, up and played with aplomb! These days he performs one song right into the next song. All the favorites are covered that way. Willie has spearheaded the longest running charity concert in the country. They have raised 46 million dollars plus since the inception in 1985. That is not bad, but the battle is not over! Click here for more information on how to donate to Farm Aid.