By Paul Robicheau
When Willie dove into “On the Road Again” to close the set, singing of “making music with my friends,” one could envision the same hopes for Farm Aid to resume its annual trek to an amphitheater somewhere in America and stoke the communal cause.
Family farms were struggling long before the pandemic, but like this year’s other festivals, Farm Aid 2020 succumbed to our new abnormal by resorting to a virtual slate of performances on Saturday to mark its 35th anniversary of helping farmers.
The at-home format clearly presented limitations (though farmer interview segments work better on small screens than stages). Back-to-back acoustic turns by Nathaniel Rateliff and Chris Stapleton set a stark country feel early, suggesting the most likely direction for the prepackaged stream. That Rateliff stood alone in a yard with a tractor behind him further accented an appropriately rustic vibe.
Nonetheless, personalized settings lent quirky variety you wouldn’t find on a joint concert stage — and a few artists (Margo Price and Willie Nelson scions Lukas and Micah) still played with bands to get beyond all the solo/duo/trio slots. With an average two or three songs per act, the program still stretched across three and a half hours online (or five hours on AXS-TV with all the disruptive commercials for weight loss, male enhancement, and shows by aging rockers on road trips).
Not to discount Farm Aid’s sweet solo spots. It was a treat to see Norah Jones croon in front of hydrangeas (despite wind bleed on the mic), Valerie June inhabit folk chestnuts with her dress draping a pondside park bench, and Brandi Carlile sing “Evangeline” to her daughter of that name as they sat on a forest-side log.
Perhaps best of all, Farm Aid principal Neil Young serenaded chickens in the dusty yard of his Colorado digs on acoustic guitar, dropping nuggets like “Harvest,” “Old Man” (which sounded frozen in time, though Young now fits the title character), and “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” aptly starting, “I think I’d like to go back home, and take it easy.” Looking like a farmer in his worn duds and trucker’s cap, Young was more at home than Dave Matthews, who was backed against the wall of a Virginia shed, griping about the heat. Matthews still wove an interesting mix, following his brooding “Don’t Drink the Water” with the Pete Seeger curio “Rye Whiskey” (in a pinched falsetto), and closing with quarantine tune “Singing from the Windows,” which noted, “Be good to see you, but suppose when it’s all said and done.”
Duos provided more surprises. Edie Brickell sang her lilting new song “Far Away” with Charlie Sexton in person for an acoustic duet before open barn doors. And Bonnie Raitt went for the usual pandemic split-screen with unusual foil Boz Scaggs for a romp through Sam & Dave’s soul classic “You Don’t Know Like I Know.” And the upstart Black Pumas duo of singer Eric Burton and guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada chose an indoor soundstage to share their diversity earworm “Colors,” with Jack Johnson adding a split-screen cameo — and Burton finally letting his voice soar on the coda.
John Mellencamp contrasted with a much darker tone, playing with guitar/banjo accompaniment on a platform next to an Airstream trailer for an equally solemn handful of socially distanced seated people in Black Lives Matter shirts. He flexed that subject in his new “Easy Target,” gravelly sung sans guitar in a Tom Waits-ian guise. Mellencamp took a knee and raised his first at the end, then strummed through “Rain on the Scarecrow,” which could be an official Farm Aid anthem.
Micah Nelson dealt a bolder jolt when his band Particle Kid unleashed psychedelic punk sparked by guitar pedals and visual effects. Sprouting seeds splashed in time lapse across the screen as Willie Nelson’s younger son with dyed red hair chanted “Life!” in a Nirvana-esque bark. Then he sat cross-legged by his pedalboard in the same home studio while brother Lukas shifted to more comforting songcraft, sounding a lot like their father in “Focus on the Music” and fleshing out a cover of the Band’s “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” with his band Promise of the Real.
Finally, the boys took back seats to the family patriarch. Looking fairly fit and trim at 87, Farm Aid instigator Willie Nelson wasted no time firing up an irreverent “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” He picked out solos on his battered nylon-string as Micah took the lead vocal in “I Thought About You, Lord” and Lukas did the honors for “Hands on the Wheel,” a love song whose line “I found myself in you” found double meaning in the assured family lineage. When Willie dove into “On the Road Again” to close the set, singing of “making music with my friends,” one could envision the same hopes for Farm Aid to resume its annual trek to an amphitheater somewhere in America and stoke the communal cause.
Of course, that usually includes a grand finale. When this year’s host Jon Batiste followed the Nelson clan to sing “I’ll Fly Away” on solo piano, then play traditional closer “Let the Circle Be Unbroken” on melodica, the move seemed odd and oddly placed — until it morphed into the sound of Willie singing that song across footage of past Farm Aids finales. And the night ended with a promise of the real.
Here’s where you can contribute to Farm Aid. And you can watch the livestream below.
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.