For some people, Farm Aid's 25th anniversary concert wasn't the first time they've experienced the event or even a major festival outside Summerfest.
For me, the 11 hours I spent at Saturday at Miller Park ended up being part of the single largest music event I've attended in my relatively short life (about as long as Farm Aid's existed). The show marked the culmination of all the things I love about music; its power to bring people together for an important cause, make them feel good in the process and make time stand still.
I'm always the person who wants to get the most out of my money so I arrived at Miller Park right after the doors opened. My seat provided a bird's-eye view of the stage and the rest of the ballpark's features and I had a lurking suspicion that something big was coming. I've been to the Marcus Ampitheater and Bradley Center for arena-style concerts. The concert layout at Miller Park is a whole different animal.
It didn't take long to get inundated with a swarm of music genres; gospel, folk, rock, country and some that combined a few. Also, it didn't take long to see a continuing theme for the day -- Farm Aid's founder Willie Nelson. The charismatic Nelson first came out at the beginning of the show to greet the crowd and offered the most unique saying (or I should say singing) of the Lord's Prayer.
Blackwood Quartet followed it up with short gospel-like set, followed by the pop/rock of L.A.-based singer Robert Francis. Francis was one of the performers I wanted to see and while he played a quality three-song set, I was left wanting more (something I felt for some of the other bands that didn't stay on long).
The crowd didn't seem too lively early on, probably because it was trickling in during the day. But it got some life when Milwaukee's own BoDeans hit the stage with several of their most recognizable songs. It was nice to see Milwaukee represented and since it was my first time seeing the band, it was a treat to see them.
Amos Lee helped inject some more life, too, with his soulful singing and guitar playing. Part of the way through, Lee had guitar problems but told the crowd that he'd sing no matter what. Things quickly were straightened out, just in time for Lee to bring Nelson out to play and sing a song with him. With a great complimenting contrast in Nelson's deeper country tone with Lee's, the two set off trading vocals with guitars and harmonica backing them up nicely.
Speaking of backing up, I couldn't wait to see the Band of Horses again, especially to see how their expansive blend of Americana, folk and country would do in a stadium-sized venue. It seemed to work pretty good in filling the airwaves of Miller Park.
Lukas Nelson followed with an equally satisfying set, drenched in roots rock and blues. While he's Willie's kid and only 21, he showed he definitely belongs with some stellar singing and guitar playing. His voice is more higher-pitched than his father's and proved he can belt out lyrics like the best of them. During a cover of "Hoochie Coochie Man" -- a tribute to Jimi Hendrix -- the younger Nelson fired into a guitar frenzy that saw him playing with his teeth.
The day seemed to rotate from heavy to acoustic performs and Jamey Johnson provided a nice contrast. Jamey Johnson, a returning Farm Aid artists, provided a dose of old-time country.
Country is Jeff Tweedy's origin (Uncle Tupelo) but he's branched into a variety of areas with his band, Wilco. Tweedy came with just his guitar and it was great to hear stripped-down versions of Wilco favorites and hear one of the songs he wrote for Mavis Staples.
Nora Jones provided a much-needed female voice to the event and provided a powerful set of her pop tunes. Another Willie Nelson sighting came when he joined Jones later in her set and like with Lee, provided for a nice contrast.
Around 7:30 p.m., Dave Matthews and frequent Dave Matthews Band contributor Tim Reynolds kicked off the string of music giants that are part of the Farm Aid board. While I can't say I'm a huge fan of Matthews and haven't really listened to his stuff of late, I can say his set swayed me in a more of positive thinking of him as a singer and entertainer.
Matthews opened with a cover of "All Along the Watchtower." This turned out to be the start of his acoustic guitar assault with Reynolds as the two fed of the energy of the other (Reynolds' great guitar skills certainly helped).
Matthews poked fun at himself at one point (possibly to show that he doesn't take himself too seriously), mentioning that he was excited for Farm Aid but that he can freak out when he gets on stage, wildly flinging his arms around.
Matthews pulled out a number of DMB favorites like "You & Me" and "Save Me" and Nelson made his routine stop towards the end of Matthews' set and performed a powerful version of Matthews' solo song "Gravedigger."
John Mellencamp followed Matthews with the night's arena rock show, pulling out classics like "Pink Houses" and "Paper and Fire" and mixing in some newer cuts. "Pink Houses" certainly was made for events like Farm Aid.
Going into Farm Aid, there was one artist I just had to see –- Neil Young. He was on my list of to sees for a long time and I was so excited I'd get to see him at Farm Aid since I missed his show at the Riverside Theater. There wasn't an announcement for Young, but he didn't need it. He's been at the forefront of making music that has iron bull integrity, saying what needs to be said and reinventing himself through voice and guitar.
Young didn't waste any time as the opening droning guitar licks of "Down by the River" came and Neil's unmistakable high pitched wailing voice flooded the stadium's speaker system. At that instant, I still couldn't believe I was finally seeing him -– it was all surreal, like I uncovered some hidden truth about music. There was plenty of distortion through the set (especially two songs from his latest album, "Le Noise") but Young spent time on harmonica and piano as well as guitar.
Young played a variety of hits and deeper classics, enough to a degree to keep me satisfied. Throughout the night Young had plenty to say, telling stories about the songs (when he wrote "Ohio" 40 years ago he didn't know it was a folk song) as well as numerous reminders to the crowd to save small farms by "reading the label" and picking products from those farms.
There had been many fireworks through the day, but the real explosive ones (and surprises) began as Young’s set came to a close. Young called his fellow Farm Aid board members -– Matthews, Mellencamp and Nelson -- to the stage and launched into a great tune as an otherworldly supergroup. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments and you had to be there to get the full extent of it.
Nelson put his stamp of approval on Farm Aid 25 and provided some of more surprises and special moments. As he prepared for his first song, Nelson mentioned that he'd like to introduce someone to the crowd. That person turned out to be Steven Tyler. It provided the most unique pairing to hear Nelson and Tyler play together. There were plenty of other moments such as Nelson bringing his son out for a stellar cover of Vaughan's "Texas Flood" as well as Nelson's own special touch of country with songs like "Beer for My Horses."
When it comes to Farm Aid 25, there will be sweet aftertaste for a very long time.