The 28th Farm Aid concert came to upstate New York on Saturday, packing more than 25,000 people into the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
The all-day event featured around 20 bands playing quick, 20- to 30-minute sets before the headliners — Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp and Jack Johnson — played their one-hour sets. .
The crowd filled the lawn and the entire back field, which also held several tents like the Homegrown Village Skills Tent, where event-goers could take such classes as Pancakes 101, bacon curing, home cheese making, and Fiber 101 using llama wool — taught by Saratoga Llamas.
The park was far more congested — all through the back fields — than other recent sold-out concerts, including Phish and Dave Matthews Band.
The big surprise of the day came when 94-year-old Pete Seeger joined the headliners to sing “This Land Is Your Land.” Young seemed to enjoy it more than anyone. Seeger introduced a new verse about New York to his classic song, which ended with the line, “New York was made to be frack-free.”
The second surprise, quieter and less dramatic, was Neil Young joining his wife, Pegi — a former backup singer — early in the day to strum his guitar and sing backup vocals for her. While the pavilion remained empty through her set, not knowing Young was on stage, the stage was lined by more than 30 photographers shooting away.
Later, during his solo set, Neil Young played some classics, like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and his own “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold.” But his set was dominated by blunt lecturing. He put his guitar down and walked the stage, calling for action.
“America is the garden of the world … but we’re threatened,” he said, calling out chemical companies for ruining the nation’s farms.
He spoke emphatically for several minutes between each song, sometimes angrily, sometimes philosophically.
“What can you do?” he said “Support your family farms.”
Willie Nelson’s son, Lukas, played a great set early in the day. Introduced as the “future of Farm Aid,” Lukas’ vocals sounded a lot like his father, both during a ballad and when he talked.
In the late afternoon, Willie Nelson came out to say hello and introduce country singer Jamey Johnson. Nelson brought the crowd to its feet for the first time of the day. One set later, when Dave Matthews came out to say hello and introduce Jack Johnson, the place erupted again. What was a casual day of music began transcending into a powerhouse nighttime concert.
Jamey Johnson’s set was excellent.
While every tune followed the same pattern — slow and soft quickly rising into a guitar-led crescendo — they worked. The sound powered up like southern-rock more than country and upped the decibel level for the night.
Jack Johnson followed with soft, wisty folk songs, backed by a gentle band that performed — sparingly — songs like “Flake,” “Better Together” and “At or With Me,” mixed in with the Jimi Hendrix classic, “Crosstown Traffic.”
Then came Dave Matthews. As expected, mayhem ensued. Matthews met the excitement of the crowd with an equally wound-up acoustic set. He and Tim Reynolds, alone on stage, played “Save Me,” “So Damn Lucky,” “If Only” and “Grace Is Gone.”
John Mellencamp followed with a seven-piece band, slacks and jacket, and a polished sound. He opened with “Authority Song,” “No One Cares About Me” and “Check it Out.”
The energy was high, and Mellencamp was great. He sang an a cappella version of “Jack and Diane” before the band returned for “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “Paper and Fire.” This was a good band and it was disappointing that the other acts — particularly Young — didn’t have similar accompaniment.
Willie Nelson came out for a short set with a full band, including his son, playing his classic laid-back country with songs like “Still Moving” and “Will You Remember Mine.”
Other performers of note were Toad the Wet Sprocket; Amos Lee, who played a solo set and ended with an intimate and intense version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come;” and young country singer Kelly Musgrave, who sang young lyrics including a song about kissing boys.
A giant electronic screen flashed farm photos throughout the show — rows of corn, bales of hay, silos, tractors and other iconic shots.
While the day was filled with music, the festival’s theme — supporting small farms — remained prominent throughout.
That message — expressed in words, song, merchandise and media — gave the day a unifying, higher quality and made the show more than a concert.