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October 3, 2006

FarmAid comes of (legal) age in Jersey

Famous citizen-activist-artists: Willie Nelson and Neil Young want to save you from spinach, and worse. Photo by T.E. LyonsSome publicity just can’t be bought. This year’s Farm Aid concert should have given off at least a faint whiff of anachronism, as the 21st annual event was held in New Jersey (at an amphitheater with the Philadelphia skyline looming over the view from lawn seats). Instead, recent news events lent the day a useful shot of relevancy. Willie Nelson led the day’s big press conference by saying that with the earliest Farm Aid events, “we set out to save the family farm. Now it looks like the family farm is going to save us.” Deaths from diseased spinach served to nudge the info-focus away from the (dull) economics of the producers and more toward the safety of the market. Suddenly it was easy for everyone to see that a low-profit, higher-price organic farmer was a shining example of a neighbor who’s careful about handling stuff that could kill you.     Admirably, Farm Aid is a working day for all participants. Warren Haynes had barely finished leading Gov’t Mule’s set when he was pulled over to be interviewer/host for a press event spotlighting one of the featured farm families. And the audience — probably the most diverse crowd of white people I’ve ever seen — listened and chatted about more than the festival-crowd standards of beer and hookups. Old and young, rural and urban, redneck and business-casual slowly gathered throughout the afternoon’s warm-up acts. From Jimmy Sturr’s polka orchestra to Steel Pulse’s reggae, those provided enough variety to inflict audience whiplash.    Alt-country got some good star wattage from the musically incestuous middle of the lineup: At one point, Steve Earle had both wife Allison Moorer and sister-in-law Shelby Lynne sharing his stage. Dave Matthews played solo — and between songs he played at being the cute, cagey mongrel. He murmured about his love for fresh tomatoes. He ranted about the difference in smell between a field with scattered cow droppings and the industrial “lake of cow shit” that smells like something “from the end of the world.”    Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule: proves that the farmers are the stars — while he just leads a jamband. Photo by T.E. LyonsJohn Mellencamp is at this point probably the least musically relevant of the event’s founders, but he built up considerable steam with his band’s percussive run-throughs of “Authority Song” and “Pink Houses.” Neil Young was in fine king-of-oddballs shape. He led a near-metal version of the one-chord “Homegrown,” saying that it could’ve been written for Nelson (a double entendre aimed at Willie’s recent arrest for pot possession). Then Young headed straight for the bucolic end of his repertoire, but used arrangements featuring a trumpet.    It’s a shame that Jerry Lee Lewis’ duet with Willie Nelson on “Jambalaya” suffered from mixing/microphone problems — both of the old pros were in fine form, and how many more times will they get to gigs like this? But now that small organic farms have Killer Spinach to kick around — a more tangible archvillain than corporate agriculture — Farm Aid has more reasons than ever to bring out its message and save a few farms.Contact the writer at tlx@aol.com