Farm Aid brings the stars out to Comcast

A review of Farm Aid at the Comcast Center on Saturday, September 20

, Contributing Writer

Hitting Boston for the first time in its history, Farm Aid featured a strong cast of veteran performers, each speaking strongly and with obvious respect about family farms and the struggles farmers face each day. Their passion was mirrored by many of the opening acts, and well as the hundreds of volunteers and farmers who were in attendance. Farm Aid is so much more than a concert, the true stars of the show never appeared on stage throughout the night, but their praises were sung by each and every performer who was a part of the event.

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The festivities kicked off at noon with a parade of quick 20 minute sets. Will Dailey gave the show a local feel as did Arlo Guthrie, who performed with his son and grandson. Vermont’s Grace Potter and the Nocturnals delivered an impressive early afternoon set while moe. followed suit with what was rumored to be their last appearance before a potential hiatus. Steve Earle and Jakob Dylan also performed.
Jerry Lee Lewis at nearly 73 slowly walked on stage in his now trademark attire, black pants, what looks like a high school marching band jacket (also in black), and those unmistakable white shoes. Starting off a bit awkwardly as the legend simply sat at his piano while waiting for a commercial break to end, he was soon working the keys like it was 1957 again. Opening with “Roll Over Beethoven” got the audience dancing, and Lewis then slowed things down with “You Win Again” which he introduced by saying “Hank Williams wrote it, Hank Williams did it, and Jerry Lewis got a gold record for it.” Lewis’ set also featured full-speed, high energy renditions of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and natural set closer “Great Balls of Fire”.

The Pretenders played an interesting set supported by a pedal steel guitarist and lead by the nearly shouting vocal of Chrissie Hynde.& Starting off with “Boots of Chinese Plastic” was an interesting choice as it caused many in the audience to take their seats after having stood to welcome The Pretenders with an ovation. After a hard to understand second song, they segued into “Talk of the Town” followed by “Chain Gang”, which got the audience more engaged by its more mainstream Pretenders sound. After commenting that she is looks forward to “all the McDonald’s and slaughterhouses being burned to the ground” Hynde transitioned to the mellow “Love’s A Mystery” before closing things out with the bluegrass inspired “Thumbelina”.

Kenny Chesney took the stage in his island-boy meets New England wardrobe of jeans, a t-shirt, baseball cap, and, of course, flip-flops to perform an acoustic set that was one of the highlights of the afternoon. Opening with “Boston” garnered huge cheers from the audience and began the sing-along that would continue for much of his set. “Never Wanted Nothing More” was filled with beautiful harmonizing between Kenny and his two guitarists. “Livin’ in Fast Forward” and “Young” followed and kept the momentum of the crowd going even though both were stripped down acoustic versions. The loudest audience singing of the set came on “Back Where I Come From” which surprisingly has never been a single for Chesney. He then covered Stevie Ray Vaughn’s classic “Pride and Joy” before audience favorite “When The Sun Goes Down”. Chesney, being joined on stage by Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson, introduced his “beer goggle song” titled “10 With a 2” that had even non-Kenny fans laughing and commiserating over bad bar decisions as the refrain says, "Last night I came in at two with a 10, but at 10 I woke up with a two."& Bringing down the energy of the crowd a bit Chesney closed with “Last Thing I Needed First Thing In the Morning” which was also accompanied by Nelson and his harp player Mickey Raphael.

Next up was Dave Matthews and his one-of-a-kind musical partner Tim Reynolds, who delivered one of the most inspired sets of the night. As the two took their seats the amazing set opened with “Bartender” followed quickly by “So Damn Lucky” which featured a long staccato slide solo that lead Matthews to declare “Thank you very much, that’s Tim Reynolds” while pointing to his longtime friend. Playing to the crowd, “Cornbread” wasn’t delivered in its typical fashion but instead featured a more country, square-dancing feel. “Stay or Leave” and “Crush” were phenomenal in this form, and the captivating vocal strength of Matthews was even enough to quiet the king and queen of obnoxious who were sitting next to me (for a few minutes).& “Where Are You Going” and “Ants Marching”, featuring Dave and Tim on dueling guitars, garnered huge screams from the crowd and were the perfect finale to a well orchestrated set.

The founding father whose music mostly closely depicts the struggle of the American farmer, John Mellencamp was the next to take center stage. Opening with “Pink Houses” was an obvious choice that started out a bit slow, followed by a much more energetic “Check It Out” that had the audience singing and dancing in the aisles. “Minutes to Memories” featured Mellencamp alone on stage with just his acoustic guitar and this solo acoustic mini-set continued with “Small Town” in which Mellencamp substituted the lyric “My wife was 15 years old when I wrote this song.” His band returned to the stage for what would be the highlights of the set “Rain on the Scarecrow” about the foreclosure of family farms in the 80’s along with “Troubled Land”.& "If I Die Sudden", from his latest album, produced loud cheers and singing from the audience. Before introducing his final song Mellencamp reminisced about the first Farm Aid saying, “We were so naïve, we thought that the government would listen and change things.” He then encouraged everyone to take out their phones, call someone and tell them to support Farm Aid as he began “Authority Song” which ended the set with the audience on their feet with fists in the air.

Neil Young, decked out in a flannel shirt, took the stage with no announcement and it was full-speed ahead from the first note. Opening the set with high energy 70’s classics “Love And Only Love” followed by “This is Nowhere” proved that Young could still command the stage. Story-song “Powderfinger” followed and was delivered beautifully, the toll of the years on Young’s voice producing a soulful contrast over his rock n’ roll guitar playing. Putting down the guitar, Young sat along on stage to perform “Oh Mother Earth” with a level of emotion that was unparalleled in the seven hour show. Switching to acoustic, Young continued on with “Unknown Legend” and “Old Man”, both of which had the audience enthralled. On a surprise note Young closed his set with a cover of “A Day in the Life” that ended with a solid minute of cathartic feedback noise after he ripped the strings off of his guitar.

Willie Nelson closed the show after making several appearances throughout the day with other artists. His set was no surprise to anyone who has seen him live before; I think he has been playing the same set for at least ten years. Opening with “Whiskey River” followed by “Still Is Still Moving To Me” had what was left of the audience dancing, or smoking, or both. A slowed down version of “Beer for My Horses” in which Nelson primarily spoke the lyrics changed the tempo of the set before it continued with a very slow “Crazy”. “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys" saw some engagement from the crowd on the chorus, while “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” actually featured some singing and harmonizing from Nelson. The set finished with “On the Road Again” and “I’ll Fly Away” during which Nelson was joined on stage by several of the performers from the afternoon sessions.

While the stage was filled with several iconic members of the music industry it was clear that the real stars of the show were the American small farmers. This was evident in every aspect of the Farm Aid experience. The Comcast Center for one day was transformed into a country fairground even featuring a “Homegrown Village” in which local farmers and merchants were able to educate the community on what we can do to support family farms in crisis. Every concession stand had at least one locally-sourced item from corn on the cob, to caramel apples, and organic beer and people in attendance were truly enjoying the learning experience that came along with their concert ticket. While the Farm Aid benefit concert only comes once a year, we can help every day, for more information you can visit www.farmaid.org.
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