Founding members, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, along with Dave Matthews (board member since 2001), have helped raise over $37 million to keep family farms in business since the inaugural Farm Aid was held in 1985.
And while it’s somewhat surprising that it took twenty-five years for Farm Aid to make its way to the Dairy State – especially considering that over 97 percent of Wisconsin farms are family owned, making our state an glowing example of what Farm Aid represents – it was an honor and a privilege for Miller Park to showcase the storied event as it celebrated a quarter century of spreading farm awareness.
As expected, Farm Aid founder and president, Willie Nelson kicked off the music portion of the day’s festivities just after noon with his own rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Waukesha natives, the Bodeans rocked a short early afternoon set. Wasting no time on any deep cuts, the local outfit stayed true to its ‘90s roots by playing fans favorites “Fadeaway” and “Closer to Free.” While they sounded as good as they did in their heyday, appearance wise it was clear that ample time has passed since “Party of Five” was on the air.
Shortly after 3 p.m. Band of Horses performed what could arguably be considered the best set of the day. After opening with “Is There a Ghost,” the title track from 2007’s Cease to Begin, lead singer, Ben Bridwell joked, “This next song has more than seven lyrics, I promise,” then proceeded to play “Compliments,” the jangly single from their latest LP, Infinite Arms. Playing a range of indie rock that often borders on alt-country, Band of Horses have already harnessed the arena rock sound on record, but their combination of expansive guitar layering sound and Bridwell’s haunting vocals is definitely worthy of stadium status.
By the time the first of the “four headliners” (Dave Matthews) was set to play, attendance had swelled noticeably, almost to capacity. It was clear that a large contingent of DMB fans had come to witness their solemn leader and his pal, Tim Reynolds give some old Dave Matthews Band tunes the stripped down acoustic treatment. Even for someone who has never seen Dave Matthews perform in any capacity, it was a treat to witness the rapport between these two as they played without the rest of the usual jam band ensemble.
Matthews, a seasoned performer, seemed to keep the crowd engaged with what can best be described as spastic yelping during the crescendo of one song. This is most likely a signature “Dave move” that his fans have grown to know and love, but to the novice listener, it was downright creepy. Luckily, Reynolds wicked guitar licks made up for Matthew’s awkward howling, and after a guest spot from Willie Nelson during “Gravedigger” all was forgiven.
Surprisingly, the best of the big headliners – or at least the most engaging – was none other than Mr. John “I was born in a small town” Mellencamp. Introduced by Farm Aid host, and fellow Hoosier, Tavis Smiley, Mellencamp wasted no time energizing the crowd with his onstage theatrics and a full band, something that most other acts were lacking.
“The echo’s good,” said Neil Young – speaking of Miller Park’s acoustics – a few songs into his reverb drenched solo set, which was shockingly similar to his solo performance at the Riverside Theater just a few weeks ago. The most shocking part was the price difference between the two shows. Never one to be shy with his words, Young was certainly the most vocal performer of the evening, unapologetically discussing the hard pressing matters of greed and corporate farming.
“Factory Farms are the reason why we have food alerts,” said Young. “It’s why we have disease.”
The biggest surprise of the evening came during the final performance. Steven Tyler of Aerosmith joined Willie Nelson onstage for “Once is Enough” and “One Time Too Many.” Tyler initially had flubbed some lyrics, but recovered quickly and then displayed some impressive harmonica skills. Backed by a band of longtime collaborators and family members (the most impressive being his son Lukas, an impressive blues guitarist in his own right) Nelson played a bevy of hits before inviting the entire day’s roster onstage for a final farewell.
Considering that Miller Park hasn’t held a concert since Bon Jovi’s 2005 gig, Farm Aid 25 was handled quite well. There were hardly any complaints about the sound quality or volume, stage times were seemingly on schedule, and beer was always a holler away. With the attendance numbers near capacity it would only makes sense that Miller Park host more events of this caliber in the future.