Vittorio Carli's review of Farm Aid

The 20th anniversary Farm Aid show was a solid if exhausting music festival that took place at the Tweeter Center on Saturday, March 19 in sunny Tinley Park.

It went overtime, and lasted from noon to past midnight. Most of the artists performed 1/2 hour sets, so it was like a musical Taste of Chicago with a special emphasis on Southern product.

The show was originally designed to help struggling farmers, but this year part of the proceeds will go to Hurricane Katrina victims. Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp started the charitable concert series in 1985 to raise money for family farmers. Dave Matthews later came on serve on the board of directors.

The distinguished lineup was heavy on blues, classic rock, folk, and country performances, and artists who combinations these genres. The headliners were the grizzled outlaw country veteran; Willie Nelson, the populist roots rocker; John Mellencamp; arena rock star, Dave Matthews; and the genre jumping genius, Neil Young.

Willie Nelson closed out the evening with an energetic set of songs that won the audience over completely, but by that time huge chucks of the crowd had left. A few numbers combined reggae and country influences, but the mix didn't quite jell (His new CD is all reggae). One of the numbers amply showcased the stellar guitar playing of his son.

Neil Young did a subdued set which was heavy on slow, folky numbers such as "Old Man" and "Walk'in to New Orleans." He left out all his hard rock numbers (such as "Hey Hey My My" and "Rockin' in the Free World,") so the show didn't capture the full range of his immense talents.

John Mellencamp had a fine multi ethnic band which included an African American percussionist and an aggressive violinist. The crowd pleasing Mellencamp did many classic rock station staples such as " Small Town and "Authority Song," The highlight was his rendition of "Scarecrow" which benefited from his tough Mitch Ryder like vocal delivery. Since the song is about farmers struggling against foreclosure, it could have been the theme song for the whole affair.

Dave Mathews was probably the biggest draw of the evening. Most of the younger concertgoers I spoke to specifically came to see him. His solo performance was solid and sincere, but unspectacular. His live acoustic version of "Grave Digger" was haunting, but his cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" was boring and uninspired.

Most of the Farm Aid lineup seemed designed to please the 40 and over crowds. But there were also some excellent, younger acts including the energetic Tex Mex band. Los Lonely Boys and critic's darlings Wilco, Both surpassed the headliners in quality.

The Chicago based alternative country (also called no depression) band, Wilco, delivered the best performance of the concert. It drew from folk, country, rock, new wave, and even chamber music.

The Tex Mex group, Los Lonely Boys did a superb set of Los Lobos and Stevie Ray Vaughan influenced tunes including the romantic hit, "Real Emotions." Willie Nelson is a big fan of Los Lonely Boys, and he has said that they were his favorite band. He joined them on-stage and did some guest guitar work.

There were other highlights.  The topical folk singer, Arlo Guthrie, did a well received set that consisted only of his song, Alice's Restaurant with some new lyrics about Farm Aid. The country goddess Emmylou Harris's set showcased her tender voice well, and the blues icon Buddy Guy delivered a devastating version of Stevie Wonder's "Signed Sealed and Delivered."

The show could've been a bit more diverse and eclectic, but it provided 12 hours of often riveting entrainment for a bargain basement price. And at least some of the money went to a good cause.

Vittorio Carli teaches film at Richard J. Daley College, and literature at Moraine Valley Community College. Visit his web site at E-mail him at

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