RALEIGH -- For most of its opening stretch, Saturday’s Farm Aid concert at Walnut Creek was a pretty mellow affair during the afternoon portion. There were a few onstage sparks -- Gary Clark Jr.’s blues-rock guitar, local country band Delta Rae wielding more drums than anyone this side of Imagine Dragons -- but the energy level never really went beyond medium-sized.
Until the dinner hour, that is. That’s when Jack White came out and blew everyone away, winning the undercard portion of the 16-act Farm Aid program going away. Few contemporary performers exhibit such a keen grasp on the fine art of rock stardom, and White had every last gesture and nuance nailed down to the last detail.
Fronting a highly skilled band that combined folksy instrumentation with an absolutely thunderous rhythm section, White swung the hammer of the gods while howling like a man possessed. I was honestly more impressed with White as a guitar-shredder than the highly regarded Clark. “Seven Nation Army” closed out White’s too-short set, with that introductory riff sounding like doom itself.
Alas, after White finished, things came plummeting back back to earth when Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds took to the stage for a series of interminable drones. Matthews seems like a very nice and well-meaning chap -- he’s a Farm Aid board member, after all -- which doesn’t change the fact that his strangled yelp is among the most grating sounds in all of popular music. But most of the crowd loved it, so what do I know?
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John Mellencamp was next, and better. You couldn’t ask for a more fitting setting to see Mellencamp than at a Farm Aid. “Rain on the Scarecrow” (which came out in 1985, the same year as the first Farm Aid) has always been the cause’s unofficial anthem, and the seen-better-days wistfulness of Mellencamp’s heartland rock evokes agrarian nostalgia. “Check It Out,” “Crumblin’ Down” and “Cherry Bomb” were all excellent.
Neil Young had the oddest stage setup of the program: Two acoustic guitars; piano and pump organ, both adorned with burning candles; video-screen backdrop showing tree rings and bark; and a wooden cigar-store indian. Naturally, Young sang “Pocahontas” to the indian.
Young himself was dressed all in black, from his jeans to his fedora, with the word EARTH spelled out on his T-shirt. Once he began to play, things got a little spooky. Young was garishly lit with red-tinted light from below, which gave him the appearance of a fiery ghost on angry songs like “Who’s Gonna Stand Up.”
Between songs, Young had plenty to say about corporate oppression. It took on the feel of a TED Talk as Young paced the stage explaining the evils of corporate farming and the nefariousness of North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, whose name drew boos from the crowd.
“Take that booing to the voting booth next time you go,” Young said.
“Rockin’ in the Free World” closed Young’s seven-song set, featuring an added verse about the coming environmental holocaust. There was also a new chant on the outro: “Renew! Sustain! End the pain!”
Finally closing out a very long day of music was Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson, whose hour-long set was…well, kind of a mess, I’m afraid. Nelson has always had a fluid and highly idiosyncratic sense of time (just try to sing along with him sometime if you don’t believe it), but he and his band seemed more out-of-sync than usual. He also didn’t seem to be in particularly strong voice and appeared to be struggling, and a frankly lousy sound mix didn’t help matters; Nelson was signaling throughout that he couldn’t hear himself.
But the good thing about being Willie at Farm Aid is that you can always call for reinforcements. As the set progressed, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jamey Johnson and other acts from earlier in the program joined Nelson onstage and he rallied down the stretch. “Always on My Mind” was quite nice.