Show Review: Farm Aid Brings Music For A Mission Back To Burgettstown, PA

Photos: Chris Besaw

Review: Kelly Besaw


Big names in the music industry gathered at the KeyBank Pavilion in Burgettstown, PA Saturday to celebrate the 32nd year of Farm Aid with a sold out show to benefit family farmers. What is Farm Aid? Farm Aid is nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep family farmers on their land. Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp organized the first Farm Aid concert in 1985. Dave Matthews joined the board in 2001. The Farm Aid concert is music for a mission. To learn more please visit:


My husband (Syracuse Music Collective owner and photographer) and I were fortunate enough to be in attendance the last time the Farm Aid lineup rocked Burgettstown in 2002. This time was extra special as it was the first time our six-year-old son was able to attend a Farm Aid event with us. The life experience he has gained from attending the press conference, being up close to music greats like Farm Aid board members, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, learning about vermicomposting in the HOMEGROWN Village and eating all the amazing food the local farmers and food vendors cooked up for the show; I can’t even begin to imagine the lasting impact that will have on him. Did I mention that all of the concessions sold at the show were sustainably produced by family farmers using ecological practices and any waste produced was recyclable or compostable?  Awesome!

Although the day in many ways is about the music, I want to take a moment to focus on the heart of the cause…the family farmers. Farm Aid has raised more than $50 million to support family owned farms. The press conference held prior to the day long concert, focused on four stories of local farms. They varied from a produce farm that sold to local schools, a dairy farm that was able to stick it out and make things work even in tough times, one of the pioneers of organic farming in the region and an inner city urban farm that invites the community to have a safe haven to commune, work and get a bite to eat if they’re hungry. Pennsylvania was selected to play host to the 2017 Farm Aid concert because it is home to over 58,000 farms. However, those farms are declining at a growing rate. For more information about Pennsylvania farms please visit

It is no surprise that the 2017 Farm Aid concert sold out the first day tickets went on sale. The lineup is incredible and features some of the music industry’s best. Farm Aid 2017 featured Willie Nelson, Neil Young with the Promise of the Real, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Sheryl Crow, Jack Johnson, The Avett Brothers, Nathaniel Rateliff &The Night Sweats, Blackberry Smoke, Margo Price, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Valerie June, Insects vs Robots and Blackwood Quartet. We met people who had traveled from Alaska and even Australia to see the show.

The day opened with the smooth sounds of the Blackwood Quartet; followed by the experimental psych-rock band Insects vs Robots featuring Micah Nelson, son of Willie. Valerie June brought her beauty and talent to the stage. How many instruments can she play?

Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real were on fire. It has been a few years since I have seen them and they have certainly progressed as a band. Lukas has a genuine, likeable stage presence and proved that he has natural talent like his father. In fact, this band is so amazing that they have the distinct honor of being the backing band for Neil Young.

Jam-rock band Blackberry Smoke played a set reminiscent of the sound of the Allman Brothers.  Farm Aid veteran Jamey Johnson took the stage next. The crowd was starting to fill in as he performed country favorites, “Up on Cripple Creek” and Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

I had heard great things about Margo Price, a newcomer to the alternative country music scene. She did not disappoint. She has a voice that will take her places and a personal reason for championing the Farm Aid cause; Her family lost their farm in 1985.

Things really started to heat up when Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nightsweats took the stage. It was my first time seeing the band and now I completely understand what my friends have been raving about. What an awesome sound that culminated with their performance of “S.O.B.”

The Avett Brother kept the momentum going. I am unsure of how to describe their sound. You really just need to check it out for yourself. They rocked “Laundry Room,” “True Sadness” and “slight Figure of Speech.”

Jack Johnson is one of the most laid back performers that I have ever seen. He opened his set with a highly entertaining parody song aptly titled, “Willie Got Me High and Stole All My Money.” Jack invited Jamey Johnson, Sheryl Crow and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nightsweats to join him onstage to cover Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” To keep the party going, Jack called for someone to find Lukas Nelson so that he could come up and perform with him. Lukas was located and joined him for “Breakdown” which included a snippet from Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker.” Jack Johnson was clearly in the mood to share the stage and the Avett Brothers joined him for the final two songs of his set, “Mudfootball” and “Better Together.”

The sun was finally starting to go down and Sheryl Crow was up next. She took the stage and immediately lead with hit song “Every Day Is a Winding Road.” She followed Jack Johnson’s lead by inviting Margo Price to join her for “Strong Enough” and ended her set with The Allman Brothers Band cover “Midnight Rider” with Margo Price, Willie and Lukas Nelson and Jack Johnson onstage to help.

The first of the Farm Aid board members, Dave Matthews along with his partner in crime, Tim Reynolds performed next. Matthews and Reynolds laid down some mean guitar tracks during set opener “Don’t Drink the Water.” They pleased their diehard followers by debuting a new song that may appear on an upcoming album release that fans have dubbed “Odds Are Against Us.” Their set felt short. Of course I am accustomed to their nearly three hour long performances.

John Mellencamp always puts on a good show. I am convinced he can pull off anything from country, blues, jazz-funk to good ol’ rock n roll. He can sing it all and his band is on point. He played fan favorites “Small Town,” “Check it Out,” an acoustic version of “Jack and Diane” to which Mellencamp said, “I don’t know why I play this song anymore. I guess it’s cause I know you all want to hear it.” “Rain on the Scarecrow” was very moving given it summarizes the heart of the devastation of the loss of a family farm.

I have seen Neil Young perform at Farm Aid several times but this year, he stole the show. Young along with Promise of the Real took the stage by storm with a thundering version of “F*ckin’ Up.” Young was ready to rock and ripped through stunning versions of “Cortez the Killer,” “Cinnamon Girl,” “Heart of Gold” and the crowd went crazy when the opening chords of “Rockin’ in the Free World” hit the air. He summed up the day by stating “Farmers are the American heroes today. They are living a real life.”

It was time for the heart and soul of Farm Aid to take the stage… Mr. Willie Nelson. My son was overjoyed that he opened with his favorite Willie song, “Whiskey River.” Willie performed a Toby Keith cover “Beer for My Horses,” “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” “On the Road Again” and ended the night with some humor or perhaps satire with “It’s All Going to Pot.”


What can you do to help?

  • Shop at your local farmer’s market
  • Join a CSA
  • Grow your own garden or participate in a community garden
  • Talk to local farmers and learn about what they do and their farming practices
  • Contribute to Farm Aid
  • Write to congress and tell them they need to support family farms not factory farms



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