Gazing out at the gathering Saturday afternoon crowd at Farm Aid, Todd Snider paused between songs to give the audience a tongue-in-cheek warning: “I’ll be sharing opinions,” he deadpanned, “not because they’re right or make sense, but because they RHYME.”
That was Snider’s introduction to his quite-funny 2004 song “Conservative Christian, Right Wing, Republican, Straight, White, American Male,” which describes people fitting that description being “haters of hippies like me.” And it pretty much summed up the political vibe of Farm Aid 2014, which drew a sold-out crowd of 20,000 to the Walnut Creek Amphitheatre to see acts including John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews.
Farm Aid is an annual benefit show for American family farmers, and you could liken it to an agrarian equivalent to festivals such as the alternative-rock extravaganza Lollapalooza. Along with music on the amphitheater’s main stage, there were farm-related presentations on the plaza. If you were interested in “Sustainable Fishing 101” or “Growing Transitions, from Tobacco to Good Food,” this was the place to be.
The most fitting comparison, however, might be the 1969 Woodstock festival, and not just because Farm Aid board member Neil Young played there. Farm Aid promotes a grass-roots organic aesthetic based on small farms and local production, and it fits right into the flower-power vibe of the original Woodstock.
Before Walnut Creek’s gates opened, Saturday’s event began with a news conference with all four board members, Farm Aid officials, farmers and activists onstage to talk about farm issues. Young made the most indelible impression with a fiery anti-corporate spiel calling out North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr and other Republicans for blocking efforts to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing unlimited political donations.
“We’ve been doing Farm Aid for 29 years,” Young said, stalking around the stage with a microphone. “Seems like 29,000 years sometimes. We love Farm Aid, but not that we have to do this.”
Young concluded by vowing that Farm Aid’s artists stand with farmers. “We will be here till hell freezes over,” Young declared to cheers from the crowd.
A few minutes later, Farm Aid founder and guiding light Willie Nelson appeared onstage to introduce the Denise Alley Wisdom Dancers to perform an Indian welcome chant (with a uniformed Marine on vocals). Nelson himself followed with “The Lord’s Prayer,” half recited and half sung as only he can.
“Y’all ready?” he asked. First up was the Raelyn Nelson Band, a rock quartet fronted by Nelson’s ukulele-playing granddaughter, who started off at full blaze with a cover of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.”
With 15 acts on a 10-hour bill, most of the early performers got to do only a couple of songs. Along with Snider, afternoon acts included country scion Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter; Willie’s son Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real; New Orleans’ always-fun Preservation Hall Jazz Band; and Insects vs Robots, a young fusion band that sounded not unlike how the Punch Brothers might have turned out if they’d started from jazz rather than classical.
They had a funny and agriculturally focused way of saying goodbye, too: “Thanks, we’re Insects vs Robots. We’re not above the ecosystem!”