LIVE: Farm Aid 2021 Unites Musicians, Farmers, and Fans in Hartford, 09/25/2021

HARTFORD, CT — Early in the morning on Saturday, I woke up excited like it was Christmas. The summer event I had waited for was finally happening, even though it was after the fall equinox. Farm Aid was here, and I was ready. As a granddaughter of farmers who loves music, this event seemed made for me. The pre-event media information sheets suggested an offering of my favorite music, farm to table eats, and possibly farm animals in the education tent. For me, this would be bliss. It was hard to wait for Jim to wake up so we could make the two hour trek.

Even in year thirty-six, Farm Aid continues to showcase new and beloved artists in the name of land conservation and local farms. The annual event was held this year in Hartford, Connecticut, and drew crowds from across the country to hear Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds, John Mellencamp, and of course Willie Nelson while also offering exposure to Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real, Tyler Childers, and Margo Price, among others.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

The event started at 1 pm with a welcoming drum ceremony that acknowledged the tribes past and modern day that still occupy the land; the women spoke to bless the fundraiser’s success. After a powerful drum circle, Margo Price sang the Lord’s Prayer in front of a glowing image of a cathedral’s stained glass. A Marine then took the stage to play a drum as Native dancers in full dress performed.

If it isn’t already clear, Farm Aid is a different festival in many ways. The founders Bob Dylan, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson set out to create a festival that not only helped farmers, but raised awareness about how local farmers worked to not only feed our country, but preserve the land in their care. The theme of Farm Aid was stated and restated repeatedly throughout the day both in videos that aired during the brief set changes and also by the artists themselves.

Ian Mellencamp was the first artist to perform, and his quick set of three pop songs showcased his voice while also giving him the opportunity to also smile at his collaborator Jazmin Grimaldi. The two’s “One Day at a Time” was fast paced, and melted beautifully into a cover of Lady Gaga’s “Shallow.” They finished their brief set with “Full Steam Ahead,” another original song by the duo. While they weren’t what the crowd came to hear, their melodies drew focus briefly in the early excitement of the day.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Willie Nelson’s son Micah Nelson followed with his punk sound as Particle Kid. Margo Price joined briefly to cover a Neil Young song, but it soured quickly. Micah’s original song “Everything is Bullshit” was a quick savior to his set, which again was not in the style of the music most fans of Farm Aid came to hear but high energy enough to keep the fans dancing.

The third set of the day was a rapturous Allison Russell whose roots-rich voice was complemented by the two cellos, fiddle and electric guitar. Her music made my heart stop for a moment; it was so honest, and so humbly a bid for hope, that her music transcended anything played thus far. Russell is a storyteller, and she shared her true story of trying to survive as a child. “When I was a child, I tried to make myself as small as I could to escape the jackal,” she explained. Her father was abusive, she disclosed, but she was able to escape first in music, and later by running away. Her first love inspired her song “Persephone,” a love song that embraced joy in the face of fear. Russell’s poetic lyrics are enhanced by the beauty of the music accompanying her, and proved to be a real treat for folks who came early to the show.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

As the sun was crossing the cerulean blue sky, Jamey Johnson then took the stage with a more traditional country sound. His love songs were forlorn and perfectly matched by his guitar playing. He apologized for it not being “too good,” which was met with laughter from the crowd at his humility. Johnson’s gray bush of a beard covered his face, but his heartbreak was audible in his lyrics as he sang about being left by his lover, and changes over time that have left new generations without the peace that previous ones enjoyed. Johnson provided the first real country sound of the day, and he was rewarded with cheers from a happy crowd that was growing anxious for some twangy favorites.

The crowd wouldn’t have to wait long for more. The next band up, Lukas Nelson and The Promise of the Real, rocked across the stage as they opened with “I Ain’t Gonna Die Alone,” a release from their newest album “A Few Stars Apart.” Nelson worked with the band to write and record this album during the pandemic when he was quarantined with his father, Willie Nelson, brother Micah and mother Annie. Song after song proved the quarantine was good for Nelson’s writing. The band’s tight sound wrapped around the more mature lyrics of this album, revealing some fun tonal shifts and intensely deep emotions.

Full disclosure: I could write a whole review just on this set alone. Lukas Nelson and The Promise of the Real performed two years ago at SPAC, and while they caught my ear then, at Farm Aid their growth as a major sound in the country scene could not be ignored. Nelson is a talented guitar player whose lyrics could break the coldest heart. With “Set Me Down on a Cloud,” Nelson sang convincingly of a heart broken at the loss of his love. Paired with an aching guitar melody, Nelson clearly gets heartbreak.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Nelson and The Promise of the Real bounced back from such a pensive piece with “Carolina,” and it was in that moment the truth emerged: this band has matured both in its compositions and performances of their work. Nelson is a sexy frontman, singing words like “I’ll give you lovin’ under entirely different stars” with a confidence that the 32-year-old wears well. “Wanna Take a Ride” was the band’s last song in their full set, a set well received by the crowd. They provided the stand-out performance of the day.

But the sun kept moving across the sky, and Bettye Lavette’s bluesy sound bubbled out of her tiny spry body as she took the stage next to sing old and new songs about love, luck, and fairness. Her rendition of McCartney’s “Blackbird” was a poignant moment where she acknowledged the pain of being a black woman in America. “He wrote that song, and it was for me,” she nodded.

At this point in the day, the air was chilling as the sun was nearing the horizon and Nathaniel Rateliffe took the stage with his band The Night Sweats. The addition of the horns in the first song signaled to the audience that this rock-a-billy band was equal parts rock and country. Rateliffe moseyed on the stage with his mouth harp and recognizable voice, crooning out “Shoe Boot.” The crowd went bananas, dancing and singing along as the wall of sound produced by the full band vibrated every cell in the place. Even my tiring eyes were shook awake as this group’s high energy pushed through one fast paced song after another.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Lukas Nelson joined the band for a cover of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In,” and it was clear these younger artists’ admiration of earlier performers bore some weight in the present work. After Nelson left the stage, Rateliffe and The Night Sweats finished off their full set with “Love Don’t.”

Next up was scheduled to be Sturgill Simpson, but his lost voice opened up an opportunity for Tyler Childers to do us all a favor and join Farm Aid. He started with a cover of Hank Williams’s “The Old Country Church” that brought fans to their feet. His original song “Hounds to Heaven” followed, and he had me hooked with his flat affect and fun sense of humor. Even as he told jokes, Childers was the straight man.

Backed by good ole boys who looked like they were just as ready to go fishing as they were to play instruments, Childers’s earnest appearance was quickly defied by his rich and detailed lyrics. “Country Squire” made me want to move south and develop the land. His twangy voice in “Creeker” paired with the details of living in a small town grew empathy in me for wanting to run away from such a dream suggested in the song. Thoughtful, deep, and musically talented, Childers’ voice covered Kenny Loggin’s “Tulsa Turnaround” in a way that made my heart weep. He followed it up with his original song “House Fire,” and he proved himself able to get the crowd up and moving after dark.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

At this point in the festival, it seemed nothing else could possibly impress me. But I was wrong. The talented Margo Price took the stage, and while I recently reviewed her at Outlaw Fest as flat and somewhat disinterested, tonight would prove Price not only has passion but elation in her performances. Price played many of the same songs, but they came off totally different than they had at SPAC.

Price was happy.

Newly elected to the Farm Aid board of directors, Price seemed energized and ready to rock. Her rockabilly vibe combined with her clear vocals in “Tennessee Song” captured me. When joined by Lukas and Micah Nelson to cover Neil Young’s “Homegrown,” her smile was contagious. And then her cover of “You Don’t Own Me” revealed it: she was empowered.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Price’s original song “A Little Pain” has quickly become my favorite of the night. Starting with a manic pace, and then slowing in the mid-section with a sexy guitar, only to return to the earlier tempo, Price’s talent owned the stage. She ended her set throwing roses to her fans, smiling and waving as a true queen should.

Dave Matthews was up next with guitarist Tim Reynolds, and the stage was set simply for them. The two men entered and sat, blanketed in blue light, as the crowd’s energy intensified. Matthews was who many came to see, and even after our recent show in Saratoga, I must admit I was longing for more Dave.

This was a totally different setting, sound and performance than the one at SPAC a week prior. It was truly a showcase of Reynolds’s mind blowing guitar skills. Opening with “Bartender,” Matthews’ vocals were as impressive as always. Reynolds can make sounds come from a guitar that just doesn’t seem possible, going high in pitch and teasing the strings to create hypnotizing solos.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Matthews made his jokes as always, charming the crowd when he explained his shame that he is not trusted by his technician to plug in his own guitar. With “Save Me,” Matthews pulled back from his microphone to sing, creating a sound like he had backup singers, while still coming forward with the main lyrics. It was mesmerizing, the combination of his vocals with Reynolds’s slide guitar and strumming. At times it could be described as jazz, while at other times sounding like Spanish guitar, the music was familiar and unique all at the same time.

The duo finished with “Ants Marching,” their sixth song of the night. It was strange, really, to have such a short set from such a prolific artist. I was comforted by the fact that I would surely see Dave again next summer, but still a little sad when he left the stage.

I wouldn’t stay sad for long, as Mr. John Mellencamp would shortly follow and completely distract me with his unconventional behaviors. Mellencamp was a favorite of mine when I was younger, and when he entered the stage I was shocked at how much he still looked like a rock star. The 69-year-old came out in black with a cigarette in his hand, which he quickly extinguished only to relight another after his first song, “Small Town.” He still wore his hair big, his smile bigger, and his attitude biggest.

The crowd adored Mellencamp, and sang along like we were all at summer camp. During “Check It Out” he relit a cigarette on stage, irreverent and proud as always. Mellencamp was accompanied by a female singer who came in at the wrong time, and he looked at her like a difficult boss looks at a teenager who is late for work.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

As he sang “Ain’t Even Done with the Night,” I watched this man strut around the stage as he ironically sang about male vulnerability and understood him a little differently than I did at age 16. He hosted “Jack and Diane” as a singalong, and when the crowd made a mistake, he stopped the song to chide them. “We’ve been rehearsing this song the last fucking 40 years, come on now,” he smiled before starting again.

Mellencamp’s relatable lyrics and quirky behavior that reminded me of a favorite uncle whose bark might be worse than his bite (might should be emphasized). With his new song, “I Always Lie to Strangers,” Mellencamp warned the crowd not to trust him – “or THEM.” Clearly anti-government and anti-establishment, he roared into “Rain on the Scarecrow,” a song about lost family farms and the devastation to the agricultural communities suffered in the 1980s. As he sang “Crumblin’ Down,” he gave honest feedback to the crowd on our singing – “That was terrible” – but also chances to make it right through repetition.

Mellencamp finished his set with “Pink Houses,” during which pictures of farmers loving their work flitted across the screen behind him. The smiling faces of the women feeding and milking cows, tending plants, and holding goats revealed the love he feels for the farmers in our communities. Mellencamp was met with a standing ovation. He stood smiling on stage for a few moments, soaking it in, before making way for Willie Nelson.

Willie Nelson and Family included his sister and sons Micah and Lukas. The set, while familiar from Outlaw, had some special surprises, including his son Lukas’ cover of Larry Davis’ “Texas Flood” and Micah’s original song for his father “If I Die When I’m High I’ll be Halfway to Heaven.” Nelson loves his kids, and they do love him. Their bond made for a unique performance that was both tender and fun.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Nelson hit all his high notes, including “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Always on My Mind.” His son Lukas brought back his band to play “(Forget About) Georgia,” right before “Georgia on My Mind.”

A country favorite, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” felt particularly poignant with Nelson’s sons joining him. The man is 88 years young, and while he seems to go on forever, there is reality pending. Nelson ended with “Stay a Little Longer,” almost reading my mind in hopes that he does stay with us, just a little bit longer.

In the end, Farm Aid was more than I expected. It was less too: I thought it was going to be a chance to see farm animals (and I was disappointed) and a showcase for good food (also disappointing, mainly because the venue couldn’t possibly meet the needs of a sold out crowd). But what I didn’t expect or know was that Farm Aid was going to feed me emotionally. The variety of musicians, the plethora of talent, the unexpected bends and turns in genres, all had me sated. I wanted the radio off on the ride home so I could muse in the bliss of the balanced meal.

Photo Gallery by Jim Gilbert

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