Before Imagine Dragons, Kacey Musgraves, Jack Johnson and others performed at Farm Aid’s 30th anniversary show in Chicago on Sept. 19, the event’s longtime leaders — Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews — shared the stage with some overlooked stars.
Mona Lee Brock, 83, of Oklahoma, got hugs from the Farm Aid foursome during a pre-concert tribute to the farmers advocates who have worked on behalf of family farmers for three decades now, all linked by their association with Farm Aid.
These advocates sometimes have saved farmer’s lives as well as their land. Brock recalled once answering the crisis hotline call of a financially distraught farmer.
“The second sound I heard,” she said, “was the clicking of gun.”
She kept the farmer on the line, talking, until family could arrive to help.
Farm Aid, created by Willie Nelson in 1985, at the height of the farm foreclosure crisis, is the longest-running concert for a cause in the music business. Now it is in the forefront of the Good Food Movement, seeking to protect and promote independent farmers, amid the rise of corporate agriculture. Brock and her fellow advocates were reminders of the important work Farm Aid does year round, year after year.
Here are 10 takeaways from Farm Aid 30, which drew an estimated 26,000 fans to the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Chicago’s Northerly Island.
1. It had to be the smallest venue Imagine Dragons appeared in all summer, during their red-hot tour. Not the outdoor amphitheater itself, but the Farm Yard stage — a 100-plus capacity tent in Farm Aid’s Homegrown Village where, before their set, food-conscious frontman Dan Reynolds and guitarist Wayne “Wing” Sermon took part in a discussion of food and justice issues.
2. When Imagine Dragons took the main stage, they covered a song by a veteran act who played at the first Farm Aid, and which might well serve as the organization’s theme song: “I Won’t Back Down,” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The Las Vegas band brought the same full-scale, spectacular light show they’ve featured on the summer tour — but only here did fans get those great visuals against the backdrop of the Chicago skyline.
3. Johnson debuted a song inspired, he said earlier backstage, by a night of smoking and poker with Farm Aid’s founder. The title and chorus: “Willie got me stoned and took all my money.” He was on a break from recording and touring when he got the call at his home in Hawaii earlier this year to join the Farm Aid bill. He agreed immediately.
4. Gospel marvel Mavis Staples took the stage after Johnson and before Imagine Dragons, an example of the great genre-mixing bills for which Farm Aid is known. The Windy City native made no secret of her joy at taking this stage in her hometown. “Chi-ca-go!” she shouted. “Farm Aid Nation! Don’t mess with us!”
5. Musgraves, decked out in a striking power blue dress that would have looked great at her prom, also wore a white, bespeckled pair of boots. Those fit perfectly with her choice cover of the day, a kick-ass version of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.”
6. Old Crow Medicine Show paid tribute to the late, great Chicago songwriter Steve Goodman, with a spirited rendition of the train-riding classic“City Of New Orleans.” The band, whose song “Wagon Wheel” was a Top 20 Hot 100 hit for Darius Rucker, also brought out jazz/folk veteran David Amram to guest on penny whistle.
7. The acoustic guitar dueling of Matthews and Tim Reynolds was a highlight of the final half of the day-long set — but so was Matthews’ inimitably weird stage patter, which ranged from talk of marriage proposals from female fans (“it was just a ruse!”) to a spider building a web on his face.
8. Mellencamp offered the most hit-laden set of the day with direct relevance to Farm Aid’s cause. Top 10 Hot 100 tracks like “Small Town” and “Rain on the Scarecrow” sounded as great as in 1985, the year Farm Aid began. As with all the artists, but particularly striking for Mellencamp, stark, beautiful and massive photos of America’s farms were projected behind his band — the work of photographers Paul Natkin, Patty O’Brien, Audra Mulkern, Sandi Whitmore, Rod Gerst and David Sowa and the lighting/projection team led by Jason Robinson.
9. Not since his collaborations with Crazy Horse has Young played as gloriously ferocious rock ’n’ roll as he did at Farm Aid, backed by The Promise of the Real. He’s been on the road all summer with the band, led by Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son. Young’s sonic assault matched the fury of his lyrics, taking aim at corporate agriculture giants like Monsanto and the dominance of “factory farms.”
10. “Will the circle be unbroken?” sang Nelson as the day’s performers re-joined him for the finale of Farm Aid 30. He crafted his set shaped by both the spiritual vocals of the Blackwood Quartet and his own rich sense of humor. “Here’s another gospel song I wrote,” he said, introducing “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” As the show’s final chords sounded, Young, who looked so severe during his own set, jumped down from a stage riser and raised his arms in triumph, with a smile of pure glee.