Farm Aid, Bristow Virginia, September 17, 2016


Farm Aid was founded in 1985 by current board members Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young as a method to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and help raise money to keep farming families on their land. In 2001, Dave Matthews joined the board of directors and together the four music icons have helped Farm Aid raise more than $50 million for American farmers. Farm Aid’s message is direct: promote family farms by creating new markets for them to thrive in as well as by taking action to change the system and promote fair farm policies that defend and bolster family-farm-centered agriculture. In a world where Monsanto and Bayer recently agreed to a $66 billion merger, creating the world’s largest agrichemical company, the messages and advocacy of Farm Aid have never been more important. 

The reviews on this page are mostly from The weather was spectacular, the food great (shrimp and grits, fried tuna bites, homemade ice cream, portobello burger, and BBQ pork chop sandwich), and the music out of this world crazy good. Wish we could follow Farm Aid around the country every year.


As the day unfolded there were a lot of moving parts outside of the incredible lineup of diverse musicians. Farm Aid brings together a strong community with a desire to give back and educate people on not only how to help the American farmer, but also how to make small changes to better their own lives. As the Jiffy Lube Live gates opened there was immediately a seed share that took place in the Homegrown Village which drew a large crowd. The Homegrown Skills tent educated people on topics such as how to compost food scraps and use the final product for gardening, how to make and use digestive bitters, how the central Appalachian economy is transitioning to be more resilient and how to transform hemp stalks into paper. Throughout the day various educational seminars were held in the Homegrown Village, some of which featured the musicians themselves.

We threw our blanket down at the edge of the massive Jiffy Lube lawn/ampitheater. We found some shade in this area, which had a nice view of the plaza below, with its food and drink vendors and the tents with the exhibits and seminars. That location also afforded a nice breeze, keeping us cool under the afternoon sun. We arrived just in time to see Willie Nelson's son Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real hit the main stage and serve up some gritty Southern rock ‘n’ roll. 

Next, Margo Price gave an emotional performance as she noted her own personal experiences when her family lost their farm in 1985, the same year Farm Aid originated. Price played two numbers inspired by those events, “Heart of America” and “Hands of Time.” I didn't get any video because I was on an ice cream run, and the ice cream was way over on the other side of the grounds!  

Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss hit the main stage just after 3 p.m. and played a variety of covers by artists such as Waylon Jennings (“I Ain’t the One” and “You Ask Me To”), Hank Cochran (“Make the World Go Away”), Larry Sparks (“John Deere Tractor”), the Carter Family (“My Dixie Darling”), Merle Haggard (“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”) and Don Williams (“Tulsa Time”). The dynamic duo also dipped into Alison’s repertoire and played a beautiful version of “Ghost in This House” before Johnson’s staple “In Color.” The highlight of this set came when the two performed a stripped down version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” which fully embodied the theme of Farm Aid. They sang the whole song, even the oft-skipped "private property" verse. That would have thrilled Pete Seeger, whose final major public appearance was at Farm Aid 2013, when he joined the entire board on that very song.

The energy in the crowd was starting to feel more electric, and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats took this momentum in stride for the duration of their set. Rateliff, a native of Missouri, exploded on stage with a deep and organic blend of soulfulness as he played some of his most recognizable hits, such as “Wasting Time,” “Howling at Nothing,” and his most notable song, “S.O.B.,” which segued beautifully into the Band’s “The Shape I’m In” to close out his set. Rateliff is one of those artists that you don’t simply listen to – you experience. His onstage persona was buttoned up and full of energy, and he delivered an absolutely incredible performance.

Sturgill Simpson was a great addition to Farm Aid as he’s been a rapidly ascending country star for years now. Celebrating the success of his most recent album release, the soul- and R&B-inspired A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, Simpson opened up with two numbers from that recording, “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” and “Keep It Between The Lines.” Simpson also tackled a handful of older songs, resurrecting the tunes as big, brassy barn-burners. Simpson went on to honor Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson when he covered “I’d Have To Be Crazy” toward the end of his set. Simpson swelled his band's ranks earlier this year, looking for a larger lineup to resurrect the thickly-stacked arrangements from A Sailor's Guide in a live setting, and this band just blew what was by now a huge crowd away.

Alabama Shakes performed at Farm Aid for the first time this year and they absolutely crushed their allotted 45-minutes. Brittany Howard and the band played a diverse set which blended songs from both of their studio albums, including “Hang Loose,” “Heartbreaker,” and “You Ain’t Alone” from Boys & Girls and “Don’t Wanna Fight,” “Dunes,” “Future People,” “Gimme All Your Love,” “Joe,” “Miss You” and the self-titled track from Sound & Color. Alabama Shakes are a breath of fresh air as they radiate sheer power incorporated into their genre-bending sound of blues and soul. Howard’s voice has an astounding range as it carries the rest of the band’s already thick and rich sound to new heights.

The largest crowd to that point of the day gathered for Dave Matthews and his lead guitarist Tim Reynolds. You could feel the anticipation mount in the air. For the die-hard fans of the Dave Matthews Band, this was a rare opportunity to see the Virginia native solo. Dave and Tim opened up with “Don’t Drink the Water,” which included a brief “This Land Is Your Land” interlude. They weren’t shy about playing the hits as they executed “Grey Street,” which found its way into “Crash Into Me” before the duo focused on one of Dave’s new numbers, “Samurai Cop.” The crowd favorite “Crush” surfaced next and managed to hit monumental peaks despite being stripped down in an acoustic setting. Reynolds fired off a series of rapid solos as this version clocked in at just less than eight minutes. The duo opted to dip into their recent repertoire again with “Bismarck” before an absolutely beautiful version of “Two Step” complete with a “Time Bomb” intro with Dave singing the chorus of “Time Bomb” over the chords of “Two Step.” This vibrant version of “Two Step” could have easily left the crowd content and closed the set, but Dave and Tim found time for “Ants Marching,” which ignited a singalong with the crowd. It’s amazing to see how two men armed with acoustic guitars can command a crowd of 20,000 people in an amphitheater.

When John Mellencamp's band came onstage in black-tie outfits and launched into 2014's "Lawless Times," it briefly seemed like this might not be your typical Mellencamp hits revue. But "Small Town" came next and the show quickly became a 1980s sing-along with "Paper in Fire," "Check It Out," "Authority Song" and, of course, "Pink Houses." "Rain on the Scarecrow" began with a haunting violin/accordion intro. This song has probably been done at every Farm Aid since the very first one, but it never loses its power. It's basically the benefit's theme song, and sadly, it is all too relevant.

Neil Young took the stage solo with his acoustic guitar and harmonica, and it was almost as if time stood still. Once the opening chords to “Heart of Gold” were stuck it felt like the air was sucked out of the venue as the audience was in complete awe of the song’s beauty. Young took this in stride as he went into “Out on the Weekend,” “Human Highway,” and “Harvest Moon” (under a brilliant harvest moon, no less). 

As Promise of the Real assembled on the stage for the rest of the set, Neil wasted no time expressing the importance of this event: “There’s a revolution starting. It’s called eating good food that your neighbors made for you. Let the earth bring us all together, back to the roots! Eat good food. It took us a long time to get this far and we have a long way to go. But with people like you, we’re going to make it!” In that moment a fan in the front row held up a t-shirt that drew Young’s attention, exclaiming “Hey, I like that shirt! F--- Monsanto!” 

Neil welcomed Willie Nelson to the stage for a cover of Nelson’s “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?” He then switched out for his beloved electric guitar Old Black for “Powderfinger” and an electrifying version of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” which featured three false endings that sent the crowd into a dancing frenzy.

It would be tough for anybody to follow Neil Young, but Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson has held down the closing spot since the first benefit concert. Nelson, who is 83 years old, battling emphysema, and smokes weed daily, still manages to hold down a beautiful singing voice in a live atmosphere, and his guitar playing was astonishly good, especially considering the shape of his guitar. Says Willie: "One of the secrets to my sound is almost beyond explanation. My battered old Martin guitar, Trigger, has the greatest tone I've ever heard from a guitar. If I picked up the finest guitar made this year and tried to play my solos exactly the way you heard them at last night's show, I'd be a copy of myself and we'd all end up bored. But if I play an instrument that is now a part of me, and do it according to the way that feels right for me, I'll always be an original." How true. 

Nelson worked in a total of 15 songs in his set, by far the most of any performer that day. Willie opened up with “Whiskey River” / “Still Is Still Moving to Me” before taking a swing at a Toby Keith cover, “Beer for My Horses,” and the notorious Waylon Jennings cover “Good Hearted Woman.” Willie worked his originals into his set, which included “On the Road Again,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “Bloody Mary Morning,” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” Hank Williams material also found its way into Willie’s set when he covered “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” and “I Saw the Light.” He gave a shoutout to the recently departed Merle Haggard by singing "It's All Going to Pot (Whether We Like It or Not)". Other notable covers that Willie played were “Georgia on My Mind” and “Amazing Grace,” which featured Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss, Dave Matthews, and others on stage for part of the grand finale.

© Jeff Mangold 2012