For Farm Aid, a fine day and a bumper crop

Willie Nelson (left) and Kenny Chesney on stage Saturday. Willie Nelson (left) and Kenny Chesney on stage Saturday. (Evan Richman/Globe Staff)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / September 22, 2008
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MANSFIELD - For 23 years the Farm Aid benefit concert has moved around the country shining a light on areas rich with family farms and illuminating the connection between eating locally and eco-consciousness. Saturday the flagship event of the Somerville-based organization finally found its way home, setting up shop at the Comcast Center for 10 hours of good music, good food, and good vibes.

The notoriously fickle New England weather couldn't have been more accommodating as the sun favored the celebration of cooperation with Mother Nature. And when the evening chill set in, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp - topping a star-studded lineup - were there to generate plenty of heat.

The trio of founding fathers, and newer board member Dave Matthews, brought an A-level enthusiasm, making evident that this cause continues to arouse their strongest passion as people and as performers. Each spoke strongly and graciously about family farms and thanked the farmers in attendance for staying in it against mounting financial odds. That urgency trickled down to all the performers, resulting in a consistently vibrant show, the last seven hours of which were broadcast live onDIRECTV.

Each of the main men brought something special to the table.

For Nelson it was not only the inspired guitar-picking and nuanced vocalizing of his own closing set of favorites from "Crazy" to "On the Road Again" but also the periodic cameos during other sets including a stint with the festive Nation Beat, a Brazilian/Brooklyn hybrid act that married classic country tunes to New Orleans and South American rhythms. Nelson also popped in to give country superstar Kenny Chesney a hand during his good-natured acoustic set. Nelson and his longtime harp player Mickey Raphael offered Chesney accompaniment on his rendition of Nelson's hilarious beer goggles classic "Ten With a Two" who's refrain goes "Last night I came in at two with a 10, but at 10 I woke up with a two." At 75, the grinning Nelson is a walking advertisement for the concept that age ain't nothing but a number.

Young was also in great spirits, crashing through a crowd-pleasing set of vintage rockers and tender acoustic numbers including a blistering "Powderfinger" and harmony-laden takes on "Old Man" and "Unknown Legend." Sitting at his mammoth pipe organ, he reworked the lyrics of the traditional "Water Is Wide" with barbs aimed at corporate greed. And in the left field department, Young and his five-piece band closed his set with a trippy, grunged-out, yet totally majestic take on the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" which concluded with his ripping the strings off his guitar and commanding thunderous, cathartic feedback.

Matching that fire was Mellencamp, whose music is the most explicitly linked to the plight of family farmers. Accordingly, the outraged howl of "Rain on the Scarecrow" and the wariness of "Pink Houses" - retrofitted with a chugging, restless backbeat - were even more powerful in this context. "If I Die Sudden," from his latest album, offered proof of the singer-songwriter's continued ability to wed thoughtfulness to muscular instrumentation.

The most recent face carved into the Farm Aid Mount Rushmore in 2001, Matthews - along with his longtime musical partner Tim Reynolds - was equally inspired. He may have been seated, but Matthews injected a captivating fervency into his vocals, wailing with power and precision on Dave Matthews Band favorites "Bartender," "Crush," and "Ants Marching" as Reynolds wrung a beefy sound with his pinky slide.

Early highlights included Jakob Dylan rolling through a few of the melodic folk rockers from his recent solo album with the Gold Mountain Rebels, the always feisty Chrissie Hynde leading the new model Pretenders though a scrappy set, Steve Earle growling through "Copperhead Road," and a rollicking set from Jerry Lee Lewis.

The nourishment onstage was bountiful, but the food for thought extended off of it as well. Every single concession offered locally-sourced, often organic fare including fresh fruit, corn on the cob, caramel apples, veggie burgers, and pizza. And an entire tent city of information booths - the "Homegrown Village" - was constructed off the concourse with many local farmers interacting with concert patrons and each other.

Farm Aid

With Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, and others

At: Comcast Center, Saturday

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