Farm Aid 2017: A Priceless Pilgrimage

More than 1,200 miles following the white line from Waterloo, Ontario, to Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, and back again in a 36-hour span; 1,600 pics snapped in the photo pit; many more musical memories made over an 11-hour span on a summerlike September day – including seeing Neil Young wail on Old Black (his 1953 vintage Gibson Goldtop Les Paul guitar) and Willie Nelson pluck away on Trigger (his faithful acoustic, which though battered and scratched, still resonates with a sound all the Texas songwriter’s own) – all for a great cause, raising awareness and funds for family farmers at Farm Aid 32 = priceless.

While the miles I logged might seem a lot, gazing at the license plates in the parking lot showed I was not alone in my journey to support this cause; people came to Pennsylvannia from as far away as Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Virginia, Maryland, and Tennessee.

With Mother Nature wreaking havoc in recent weeks as people (including many farmers) from Florida to Texas tried to reason with hurricane season, this installment of Farm Aid proved the event is as important and as relevant today as it was when Willie Nelson founded the nonprofit organization back in 1985. Its mission to help and support family farmers trying to eke out a living, growing good food and competing with corporate giants and factory farms, remains the same.

As always, the ornery and unpredictable Young – never shy to share an option – had one of the strongest statements in the morning press conference. Shakey said: “I’m here to tell you America is already great! We don’t need to apologize and feel bad about who we are. Stop watching TV because it makes you feel bad.”

More than three decades on, the Farm Aid concert is a live music event that certainly makes one feel good about not just the Americas, but life in general. All the artists donate their time and play for free. And the 23,000 strong who attended this year’s all-day festival showed their support by sporting T-shirts that read “Stop Factory Farms” and “Fuck Monsanto” and buying posters, pullovers, and other Farm Aid merchandise throughout the day. Since 1985, Farm Aid has raised more than $50 million to help family farmers thrive all over the country while inspiring millions to take part in the Good Food Movement.

The day began shortly after 12:30 p.m. with Farm Aid founder Nelson singing an a capella version of the Lord’s Prayer. Appropriately, the original country outlaw closed the show nearly 11 hours later with his family band and many of the amazing artists who played throughout the day.

Willie’s son Lukas Nelson logged the most miles on the Farm Aid stage on this Saturday. And for good reason. He played a tight set early in the day with his band The Promise of the Real (POTR); later, he joined many of the other musicians, such as Jack Johnson and Sheryl Crow, before backing up Neil Young in his late-evening scorching set – channeling the ghosts of Crazy Horse 40 years gone – playing riffs on his Gibson and letting it wail and take him on a meandering journey. The 28-year-old’s voice echoes a young Willie Nelson, but he’s got a sound all his own.

Other highlights are too numerous, but I’ve captured a few. What the fundraiser was marked by – more than any of the other five Farm Aids I’ve attended over the past 15 years – were the artist collaborations. Jamey Johnson invited Nelson and POTR to join him for a rousing rendition of The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek.” Next up, Margo Price performed the appropriate song: “I Want to Buy Back the Farm.”

The day really kicked into gear around 4 p.m. with Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. Their big hit “S.O.B.” got the cowboys and cowgirls in the crowd stompin’ their feet and clapping their hands trying to keep up the beat with the band’s raucous rhythms and pulsating percussion. The Avett Brothers kept the kitchen party going, playing an energetic and sweaty set marked by songs new and old.

Later, Jack Johnson set the tone for encouraging collaborations. The highlight came mid-set when he invited Rateliff and his band, Jamey Johnson, and Sheryl Crow to join him on a memorable, soulful rendition of Bob Dylan’s classic “I Shall Be Released.” Crow’s set that followed featured many of her radio-friendly hits, including “My Favorite Mistake,” and “All I Wanna Do.”

The pinnacle was when Crow invited Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson, Jack Johnson, and Margo Price to join her on a blistering version of The Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” in a nod to the late great Gregg Allman.

As night descended, and predictable but enjoyable sets by Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds and John Mellencamp had passed, it was finally “Neil time.” After the roadies worked feverishly to get all his gear set up and his guitars ready, Young strutted out shortly after 9:35 p.m. with POTR and wasted no time, picking up Old Black and launching into “Fuckin’ Up.”

Finally, as the concert drew to its close, the grandfather and founder of this incredible day, 84-year-old Nelson, ended the show with nearly 60 minutes of all his hits. Nelson was backed by his longtime family band and, for the last few songs, nearly every one of the artists who had played that day joined him for a final curtain call.

While waiting for more than an hour to get out of the parking lot, I reminisced about the day, the cause, and just how lucky I was to be one of the 23,000 fans who witnessed Farm Aid 2017 in Pennsylvania – a concert I’ll not soon forget.