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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, July 28, 2014

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Neil Young (left) and Willie Nelson share the stage at Farm Aid.
Neil Young (left) and Willie Nelson share the stage at Farm Aid.
The show on Saturday attracted 35,000 fans to Miller Park.
The show on Saturday attracted 35,000 fans to Miller Park.

Farm Aid 25 was more than just music

Farm Aid 25, the benefit concert that captivated a crowd of close to 35,000 Saturday at Miller Park, provided a handful of memorable music moments -- Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds' scorching "All Along the Watchtower," John Mellencamp's driving "Rain on the Scarecrow," Neil Young's haunting "Down by the River" and a somewhat surreal duet between Willie Nelson and Aerosmith / "American Idol" icon Steven Tyler.

Music was only part of the story.

While watching the second half of the 10-hour proceedings unfold from a seat in short center field, I was transported back to a blistering hot day in July 1985. That was the day Bob Geldof brought the music world together for Live Aid, a concert to raise money to combat Ethiopian famine. The event, which was held at Wembley Stadium in London, JFK Stadium in Philadelphia and other venues, was a technological marvel witnessed by a worldwide TV audience estimated at 2 billion.

Described by some as "Woodstock for the '80s," the concert helped establish U2 as a supergroup, cemented MTV's place in the culture (believe it or not, kiddies, that channel used to focus on music) and gave birth to Farm Aid.

It was Bob Dylan's comment during a Live Aid set --"I hope that some of the money...maybe they can just take a little bit of it, maybe...one or two million, maybe...and use it, say, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms and, the farmers here, owe to the banks..."

A few weeks later, Nelson and Mellencamp and many of their friends launched the inaugural Farm Aid show in Champaign, Ill.

While the Live Aid proceedings are a fleeting memory, Farm Aid keeps chugging along. The series has raised close to $40 million and prompted Mellencamp to tout Nelson -- the godfather of the event and frequent cameo guest with early acts -- as a candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Farm Aid's goals have shifted somewhat from an economic assist to a focus on the Good Food movement, sustainable farming, etc., but the "let's roll up our sleeves" vibe remained evident under the banner "Growing Hope for America." That what allowed a somewhat eclectic mix of artists to mesh into a somewhat cohesive evening of entertainment.

Not all fans who like the country Buffett stylings of Kenny Chesney ("Beer in Mexico," "Summertime") also pop Norah Jones into the CD player. Not all of Nelson's fans have Mellencamp's hits like "Pink Houses," "Check it Out" or "Cherry Bomb" on their iPod playlists. Heck, not all of Nelson's fans liked his rambling reggae jam, either.

But a night filled with short sets and a common cause led to feelings of hope and helping. Music may have been the main vehicle, but the message of the day lingered long after the last road case was closed.

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