Farm Aid and Farm Aid Eve
- Bill Cosby delivers lighthearted enlightenment at Riverside Theater
- Satan for the masses: Ghost B.C. brings spooky Swedish metal to Turner Hall
- Black Rebel Motorcycle Club deliver bombastic, potent show at Turner Hall
- Joe Bonamassa falls into familiar blues groove at Riverside Theater
- Milwaukee Psych Fest delivers variations on a tripped-out theme
Farm Aid benefited a great cause, but was the music just as great? Some of it was a feast, some of it was famine, and some of it landed in the middle ground. Here’s how The A.V. Club’s Steven Hyden dished it up.
- I wasn’t a fan of Band Of Horses’ 2010 record Infinite Arms, which veered from the dreamy, pastoral folk-rock of the band’s great first two albums toward something less mysterious and emotionally involving. Live, however, the band still delivers the goods, particularly on dynamite early material like the set-opening “Is There A Ghost” and the immortal “The Funeral,” which met the considerable vastness of Miller Park with a muscular surge to the heavens that was barely contained by the enclosed roof.
- Few people not named Bob Dylan or Neil Young can pull off the “one man and a guitar” act like Jeff Tweedy, whose 2006 solo show at Pabst Theater is one of the most memorable Milwaukee concerts of recent years. Tweedy was similarly engaging at Miller Park, performing stunning versions of “Remember The Mountain Bed” and “You Are Not Alone,” the title track from the 2010 Mavis Staples album he produced. Too bad this wasn’t really Tweedy’s crowd—for many, he was just an appetizer before Norah Jones and Kenny Chesney. But this was one of the few sets of day that I wished was longer than 25 minutes.
- Norah Jones started off in predictably mellow fashion, stepping behind a piano in a slinky black dress and red cowboy boots, and opening with a beguiling “Come Away With Me.” But then she took a pleasing turn into hillbilly balladry with a spritely cover of Johnny Cash’s “Cry, Cry, Cry” and the lovely “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart,” a set of Hank Williams lyrics that Jones set to music. “We’re bringing the chick power to Farm Aid,” Jones declared, jokingly nodding to her status as the only woman on the bill. She wasn’t kidding about the “power” part, though.
- Dispensing with the obligatory “Pink Houses” at the top of a hits-laden set, John Mellencamp was a dependably solid and much-needed shot in the arm after the wretched doldrums of Kenny Chesney and Dave Matthews—more on them in a bit—playing the most overtly rocking music of the day. (Though the artist formerly known as Cougar also made sure to do a mini-acoustic set.) Mellencamp songs like “Small Town” and “Rain On The Scarecrow” had the advantage of relating explicitly to the message of Farm Aid, something most of the other performers either only touched on with awkward between-song banter or avoided altogether.
- For months Mellencamp has been pushing for a Nobel Peace Prize to go to Willie Nelson’s work with Farm Aid. While Mellencamp’s goal seems like a long shot, there’s no denying that Nelson’s warm-hearted humanism, not to mention his magnetic likeability and easygoing charisma, has played a big part in the benefit’s staying power. On stage, Nelson talks more than he sings these days, and his guitar solos sometimes meander a little too far from the ballast of his songs. But his effortless and wide-ranging command of various music styles—he played everything from rocking country to roadhouse blues to, incredibly, farmer-friendly reggae—still makes him a uniquely inclusive force in music, not to mention a national treasure. How good is Willie Nelson? Only he could make a song as dumb as “Whiskey For My Men (Beer For My Horses)” listenable.
NOURISHING BUT NOT WHOLLY SATISFYING
- Friday’s Drive-By Truckers concert at the Pabst Theater was billed as a “special Farm Aid eve” show, though it gave the event a dubiously inspired kick-off when Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett introduced our nation’s finest southern rock band as “Drive-By Trucking.” Barrett’s flub proved to be a bad omen for a night that seemed a little off in spite of all the elements—a good set list, good energy, and a good supply of whiskey—seemingly being in place. Marred by muddy sound that washed out the vivid storytelling of the band’s lyrics, DBT fared best when it stuck to the bombastic riffs of stampeding rockers like “Lookout Mountain” and “Where The Devil Don’t Stay,” which carried over the momentum created after feisty openers The Henry Clay People brought down the house with an endearingly enthusiastic cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run.” But the band faltered on slower numbers like the otherwise terrific “Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife,” which suffered from a strange lack of focus and purpose. DBT already canceled a previously scheduled Milwaukee show back in 2009; this time, the band wasn’t running on all cylinders, resulting in a performance that felt a little flat.
- I arrived at Miller Park on Saturday just as Amos Lee stepped onstage, and the pop-folkie quickly got me acclimated to soaking in several hours of rootsy, activist music, strumming a plaintive guitar and railing against “bullshit” bankers takin’ people’s farms away. Lee isn’t the grittiest singer in the world, but the truth-telling protest singer act suits him, at least for the duration of a quick 20-minute set.
- Farm Aid is all about helping your neighbors and family members, so why shouldn’t Nelson lend a hand to his son Lukas Nelson by giving his so-so SoCal blues-rock band Promise Of The Real a prime late-afternoon spot? Lukas’ piercing nasal whine was actually more reminiscent of another Texas music icon, Roky Erickson, than of his dad’s jazzy inflections, but his extended soloing was pure Stevie Ray Vaughan-style roadhouse riffage. (I’ll let you decide whether that comparison is flattering.)
- As on his recent “Twisted Road” tour that visited the Riverside Theater in July, Neil Young faced the Farm Aid faithful armed chiefly with his over-amped guitar, making occasional detours to a weezy organ. Young’s insistence on performing new and old songs alike in the style of his just-released album Le Noise was another left turn in a career devoid of straight lines; it was certainly an admirable and characteristically idiosyncratic choice, but also willfully anticlimactic after a long day of music. “Down By The River” and “Ohio” sounded pretty great anyway, while the problematic Le Noise material improved somewhat in a live setting.
- Judging by the omnipresent smirkiness that kicks his cheesy, cruise-ship-singer-level vocal mugging up from annoying to out-and-out unbearable, singer-songwriter/scourge Jason Mraz apparently believes he is far more adorable than he actually is. But Mraz didn’t get invited to Farm Aid just for his cherubic cuteness and unquestioned scatting prowess; he also has an intimate knowledge and appreciation of agricultural issues. On “Frank D. Fixer,” Mraz sings about wishing he were a farmer, so he could “grow you a Garden of Eden.” (Psst, price controls and government subsidies are actually far more helpful.)
- Plain-spoken man of the people Kenny Chesney announced early in his set that he had just flown to Milwaukee from Los Angeles via private jet; whether his involvement in Farm Aid helped the Earth more than his flight wrecked it was beside the issue for the audience, which granted him one of the warmest greetings of the night. It was a testament to Chesney’s status as the biggest contemporary star on the bill, though his set indicated that he was far from the best. Contradictions abounded during Chesney’s performance, which dealt mainly in the sun-and-fun escapism of “Beer In Mexico” and “Summertime,” as temperatures outside dipped well below 50 degrees. Nevertheless, stripping the dross of Chesney’s records down to a ragged acoustic-based three-piece did his music some good, even if it couldn’t make the aggressively innocuous “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven” any less insipid.
- Backward caps all over Miller Park nodded in approval as soon as Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds arrived to beat the holy hell out of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” one of the few songs in the rock canon durable enough to withstand Matthews’ laughably hammy vocal histrionics. But give this to Matthews—all he needs is an artlessly strummed guitar and a bevy of constipated-looking facial tics to captivate tens of thousands of people. That he’s able to do this with utterly mediocre songs like “Satellite” and “Don’t Drink The Water” make the size of his adoring audience all the more impressive.