Leading up to Farm Aid I had a very real desire for a rainy forecast. I needed an excuse to skip it. I won’t even tell you about all the other things going on in Milwaukee last Saturday that I wanted to be at.
The day arrived, and the forecast was rainy, and I still couldn’t talk myself out of going.
It wasn’t the money I spent on the tickets. It was that this was Farm Aid, and it was at my home venue, deep down my favorite venue in all the world. I passed up seeing Neil Young here once before and it remains one of my few deep regrets in life. I could not do it again.
It was on the drive from Milwaukee that I remembered that I live for this. Festivals in the rain. Life is so boring compared to the shared experience of getting drenched at a music festival. You’ll forget most of the rest of your life before you’ll ever forget these memories.
To top it off, Jen stayed behind to attend the one thing I most regretted missing, so I felt slightly less guilty. Plus, my cousin Angie, whom I hadn’t seen in years, was going to Farm Aid. Not to mention a few of my Janesville homies. As Sir Paul says, the decision that I’m making is the right one, or I’m never gonna know.
At this juncture I have to point out that Alpine Valley was not always a police state. On Saturday they had K-9 units hanging out as you walked up to the turnstiles for fucksake. Gee, are you going to donate the proceeds from your little weed busts at a fucking charity fundraiser to the family farms of Wisconsin? Not bloody likely. I’ve been a guest in the cozy confines of the Walworth County jail and it was the best I’ve ever been treated in a jail, but I still don’t recommend it. And they wonder why they haven’t been able to sustain a healthy concert season here any more.
That said, there’s still no place I’d rather be. Apparently the same could be said for some 37,000 other people as this was probably the most packed I have ever seen the place. Pearl Jam in ’98 maybe was comparable. At 2 in the afternoon the lawn was overflowing. In the rain. Bravo, people.
I caught maybe half of Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real. Lukas has an undeniable Ted Neeley energy, which I hope he would take as the compliment I intend, as well as a way with the bluesy lead guitar stuff. If it feels a bit studied I think it’s mostly because you probably slip away into the modes of the masters you’ve clearly studied, right? There’s passion in his playing as well as affection for his antecedents and a heightened fluidity compared with the last time I saw him. He paid tribute to Woodstock in its 50th anniversary year, going so far as to lament the degradation of the term “hippie”; guilty as charged, Lukas. I come from a hippie-hating generation; your buddy Neil egged me on, okay? Lukas didn’t hear my thoughts. His rendition of “Carry On” was choice, the chef’s kiss being that it originally appeared on a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album but did not actually feature any Young. A hippie anthem if there ever was one.
After this set I bought a corndog at a stand that just said HAND DIPPED CORNDOGS or something like that, and it was by far the best corndog I’ve ever eaten. The batter was like grainy angelfood cake. Like, your turn, Vanguard.
There’s quite a bit of overlap between the traveling Outlaw Music Festival and this Farm Aid. I’d seen Margo Price at the Outlaw fest two years ago, and she was great again at Alpine. The only Janis Joplin album my parents had when I was growing up was Pearl, and although some of her hits frankly grated on me, I developed a fixation on Pearl. “Move Over” became kind of sacred both for being the only solo-Janis composition but also the best song on the album. Margo pulled it off with abandon; I was sunk after the first line.
I remember when The Guitar Song came out (2010). It was the country abum even hipsters were allowed to enjoy. He’s only put out one album since then, a covers set? I must’ve missed something in the intervening years. How much research am I willing to do for this blog?? I have a day job for God’s sake! The mystery to me is not what has he been doing but how does a guy like this keep anything resembling a low profile. Did pressure get to him? Is he still writing songs? Because he played only a couple of originals at Alpine. It boiled down to the energy he and his band put out into the world. I don’t know of many people I’d trust to do any kind of interpretation of a song as iconic as “This Land Is Your Land”; Jamey’s was profound. I felt like I was getting a glimpse into some long-kept secret. I was legitimately shook.
I think I’d really like Nathaniel Rateliff if I got more familiar with his music. He always rips it up onstage. It’s just a big world, Nathaniel, I have nothing to say for myself.
Luke Combs I’m told is kind of a big deal, which I didn’t know. Nobody’s paying me for this, okay? I chilled for his first song, it was like frat-country. Shortly after that he shotgunned a beer, although when he tossed it aside it seemed like there was an awful lot of beer still spilling out of the can. I then made the bold choice to go get some food. Yeah the corndog wasn’t far removed but there wasn’t anything else I wanted to miss until Mellencamp, and I dreaded the mad rush at that point. Sorry, Luke, maybe you were really good.
The wait for food was insane, but only because you’re standing in a line, and you’re wanting to get back out there and hear music. This wasn’t fast food, it was good food quickly. I’m serious, the potato wedges—erroneously referred to as “fries” on the menu—were high art. (NOTE: This was special Farm-Aid catering; I’d bet my left nipple that normal Alpine concessions are garbage compared to this.) Worth the wait, but responsible for my never locating my cousin!! (It’s a long story, but trust me. Good talking to you at least, Javier!)
Confession: Blues-rock post-Zeppelin, blech. There are always exceptions, but I hadn’t had anybody sell me on Bonnie Raitt, so what can I say, I’ve been robbed of all my previous opportunities to see her, by all of YOU. (C. Porterfield exempted from this accusation, having sung Bonnie’s praises to my I’ll-file-that-away-for-later reaction.) No, clearly it’s the music press at fault; “Something To Talk About” doesn’t really tell the tale. All these years, all her fans must have been incredulous regarding people like me. Like I never loved a band whose most famous song sucks. Anyway she is a person who exudes pure truth and plays guitar like a motherfucker and she tore the roof off the sucker and then played “Burning Down The House”.
I said to Doj, “I could really go for a ‘Bartender’.” Dave played “Grace Is Gone” and I said, “Well, close enough.” Doj wanted “Gravedigger” but instead we got “So Damn Lucky”; that didn’t quite cut it, but still, pretty good song…? Dave and I go way back but I’m not very up-to-date; Doj even knew the new tunes. He’s like me with Phish, incurable. Much bonding, very laughter. Definitely nobody wanted “Ants Marching” but then again, who am I kidding, probably lots of people wanted it. Shit, when was the last time I’d heard it? Dave is right, it is still fun to sing. And that was it, seven songs, what’re ya gonna do?
Mellencamp, I don’t know what to say! I’m confident that you’re a good guy! I love the “Scarecrow” song! Your energy precedes my awareness of what’s vital in music. I cannot for the life of me fathom the intentions, the belief systems, that inspire your songs. I can tell you believe in what you’re doing! Rock on.
When they were setting up the instruments on the stage, that’s when we all became aware that Neil was going to be playing with a band—Promise Of The Real, as it happened. To my own befuddlement, I hadn’t seen Neil play a full-on electric show since 2003. Sure, there haven’t been many local opportunities, but with a little effort I could’ve pretty easily caught this band or even Crazy Horse at some point. This is one of those things you don’t realize until you’re standing there, and he’s onstage murdering that guitar, and it’s washing over you. You remember that nobody does it like Neil. And everyone tries, every rock guitarist worth a damn for the past 40 years has been going for this.
For me, it goes back to the MTV video awards, 1993. Pearl Jam plays “Animal”, then out comes Neil to do “Rockin’ In The Free World” with them. The song is over, and Neil’s guitar is screaming, howling, this absolutely unholy noise, and I was just shuddering, on another plane. Even having been a fan since birth, this was the first time I ever had that guitar tone mainlined into my brain as Neil was weilding it in real time. It seared into me and I’ve never forgotten it, but apparently, I kind of did forget. Or I’d have been on a mission to experience that way more often than I have.
The dust settled and out came Willie. He always opens with the same song, “Whiskey River”, to the dismay of no one. He has Lukas to play and sing the blues; Papa Nelson sticks with his inimitable country/jazz hybrid stylings. In his prime he perfected a one-man genre of lead guitar picking; in his old age the genre has merely evolved into not giving a single fuck what’s surrounding it. He plays his usual tributes, “Good Hearted Woman” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys”, and a surprise, at least to me: Mac Davis’s “It’s Hard To Be Humble”.
I’ve had this song memorized for as long as I can remember. As in, way longer than I’ve had a clue what its lyrics mean. I even went through a phase of taking it literally and hating it. Stop the presses but I just admitted to not understanding something that I totally understand now. My dad used to play this record all the time; I guess in the long run it really did sink in.
So I’m standing there, at Alpine Valley, where I saw my first real concert 28 years ago, and there’s Willie Nelson, whose Stardust album was the soundtrack to, cumulatively, oh, a good two years of my life? He’s singing this song that I’ve never heard him sing, I can’t remember whose song it even is, and I’m thinking about my dad, how is it we’ve never been to Alpine Valley together? He should’ve been here for this.
My dad was never a farmer, but technically, I did grow up on a farm. At this stage, though, I have little connection to rural life, little business even being at this thing called Farm Aid. My ticket money may as well be paying for indulgences of some kind; we’d all certainly be screwed without farmers, and in modern times, farmers have been the ones getting screwed, by bad government, by climate change, by massive industrial, um, farms. Small-time farmers certainly aren’t out there for the wealth or prestige. We’re talking about a life in service to a greater good than most if not all of you reading this will ever fathom.
There was no macro-community here. Farm Aid 2019 did not define a generation. The data that I have is woefully subjective and corrupt, but I still present it: Most humans in attendance were moved, whether by music or activism or empathy, and they’ll always remember it. 37,000, big deal. If five total people walked out of there thinking ‘You know what, I’m gonna stop at that farmer’s market on my way home from work on Thursday’ then these legends and believers did more for our planet than most of us have ever done.
Activist rock stars walk a preposterous tightrope, especially considering what’s at stake. Everybody kept it simple and pragmatic, preaching without being preachy. The all-star finale as always was a plea for togetherness, oneness, like the dream of Woodstock, only real and gravely pressing. Surely at least some people walked out the gates of Alpine Valley in absolution but driven to do more. Surely in some small way, Wille and Neil and their friends are moving the needle in the right direction, on the off chance that we might outlive the damage done.