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Concert Review: From Boxstep to Nelson, Farm Aid satisfies

Sunday, September 22, 2002

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Music Critic

To get the full effect of Farm Aid at the Post-Gazette Pavilion yesterday, you really had to be there. If you watched it live on CMT, you missed out on two of the more inspired artists of the day -- Pittsburgh's Boxstep and the Drive-By Truckers.

Willie Nelson at Farm Aid. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

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As the only artist representing local interests, Boxstep occupied a second stage and got the whole thing rolling with the melancholy strings and slide guitar of "Ryan's Glacier." An impassioned performance of "Airport Arrivals" followed as the band reconstructed the towering wall of sound its fans have come to know and love while adding yet another brick in Deliberate Stranger Tom Moran, who brought a mandolin and banjo to the table. Eric Graf was screaming like a man possessed by old-school Detroit rock 'n' roll on "Route 1," trading lines with Sarah Siplak on a song that peaked with Erin "Scratchy" Hutter gearing up to take on Charlie Daniels' devil down in Georgia.

After closing their opening set with an urgent new rocker called "Salvation is a Subdivision" while people were still trickling into the venue, Boxstep would return for two more mini-sets, the first of which they opened with a song whose sound the band can truly call its own -- garage-punk with two violins.

Even Willie Nelson couldn't bring that kind of edge to Lee Ann Womack's set. He joined the photogenic country starlet on a song called "Mendecino County Line" and got a great reaction for his first onstage appearance of the day. But as for Womack, while her vocals were nearly as pretty as she is -- and probably three times as powerful -- her sound was just too slick and unexceptional to do her voice justice. She should find some roots and get in touch with them before she's swallowed up by Nashville's hit machine.

Her set was followed by Los Lonely Boys, a soulful band of brothers whose Latino bar-rock sound was fueled by a guitarist whose obvious debt to Stevie Ray Vaughn resulted in some flashy lead guitar work. Anthony Smith was, as noted, "a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll." Fifteen, 20 years ago, you would've called it cowpunk. Now, I'm not sure what you'd call it. But he was among the grittier performers of the day. Until you got to Drive-By Truckers anyway.

The Truckers tore it up with three guitars and attitude to open their set with a song called "Sinkhole" that Patterson Hood introduced as having been inspired by an Oscar-winning film about "saving the family farm by any means necessary." By the final verse, the banker who's foreclosing on the family farm is buried in a sinkhole. They ended their all-too-brief performance two songs later with "Let There Be Rock," a modern-day Southern Rock classic about "the rise and fall of arena rock" delivered with a winning blend of absolute sincerity and grinning irreverence.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd followed with the Double Trouble rhythm section driving home the debt to Vaughn the young guitarist shares with the guitarist for Los Lonely Boys. Before the set was out, he'd covered Hendrix, played guitar behind his head and squeezed out a one-handed solo.

Kid Rock performs at Farm Aid. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Keith Urban was charming, cranking out a set of user-friendly modern country that peaked when Urban dedicated "Song For Dad" to his own dad, who "did the best that he could." It was sweet.

And sweet is one word you will more than likely never hear applied to Toby Keith. His unplugged set began with a soft-rocking ballad about the Taliban that redefined the American art of dumbing issues down. "I've got a two-bedroom cave," it began. And before it was through, the Angry American celebrated U.S. bombing in Afghanistan with "Man, you should've see 'em run," which sounds a lot like New York City last September. He should rethink that one. In the meantime, Keith was better when he called out Willie Nelson to salute the man in song with a novelty tune whose chorus ran, "I'll never smoke weed with Willie again." Nelson stayed on through the end of Keith's set, lending a show of support to the flag-waving boot-in-your-ass approach to foreign policy expressed in the "Angry American" song.

The understated subtlety of Gillian Welch's two-song bluegrass intermission proved a welcome change of pace.

That's not to say a lack of subtlety is necessarily a bad thing. Take Kid Rock, the first performer of the day who was cocky enough to come on like a rock star. He opened his set with a cover of "Fire Down Below," an old Bob Seger tune, but really hit his stride on "American Bad Ass" with its proclamation of "I'm goin' platinum," followed by a snippet of the Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider" as a segue into "Cowboy" (which, in turn, was interrupted by the "Dukes of Hazzard" theme). He brought the tempo down for "Picture," performed as a seated duet with Allison Moorer. It was nice, a calm before the raging storm that was Kid Rock's big finish, an explosive performance of "Bawitdaba."

No act could have touched it in terms of excitement, intensity, showmanship or fun, which made it just as well that the next song anybody heard was "Grace is Gone," a downbeat drinking song performed by Dave Matthews alone on acoustic guitar. His fans will more than likely disagree, but Matthews' writing benefited greatly from the stripped-down setting without all the detours he takes with his band. And it served the emotion of songs as dark as "Gravedigger" and "Bartender." He closed with a cover of "All Along the Watchtower," changing the lyrics to "The factory farmer ruined my earth."

John Mellencamp didn't have to alter anybody's lyrics. He's already got a song about the farmer, and he knew enough to open with it in a hit-filled set that also featured "Peaceful World," "Paper in Fire," "Crumbling Down," an oddly understated "Small Town" (complete with the boast "My wife was 15 when I wrote this song") and a rousing "Pink Houses" with Gillian Welch. No artist to that point had focused more on cranking out the greatest hits and Mellencamp's efforts at making them happy did not go unnoticed by the audience of 23,257.

Wearing a bright red T-shirt that practically screamed its message, "Stop Factory Farms," in big white letters, Neil Young opened with a stark, emotional reading of "Old Man." And from that point out, he alternated heartfelt solo renditions of classic material -- "Heart of Gold" to "Harvest Moon" -- with pleas to help the family farmer.

"This is what it's all about," he said, "people like you coming to hear music and hear what's going on about the farmers." Encouraging fans to buy organic food, he noted that "good food is grown on farms. Bad food is grown in factories. Good food is safe. Factory food is ugly." He moved from acoustic guitar to organ and brought out Mickey Raphael to play the harp for a delicate, heartbreaking version of "Mother Earth." But first, he joked, "Attention shoppers. Buy with a conscience and save the family farm."

Switching to upright piano, he poured his heart into a fragile rendition of "After the Gold Rush," changing the lyrics to, "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st Century." Nelson and Native American dancers joined him as he closed with two more classics, "Comes a Time" and "Sugar Mountain," sent out with "love for the family farmer and all you people who support what we're doing."

Nelson brought the party to a close with a set that began, as is Nelson tradition, with a trip down "Whiskey River." His band kept it loose and alive as Nelson wrapped the most distinctive voice in country music, if not pop, around such Nelson standards as "Good Hearted Woman" and "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys," in addition to a song about the plight of family farmers, introduced as "kind of the reason we're all here, that brings us back year after year." In the song, he refers to a "hole in the sky where God used to be," while the chorus begins "My American dream fell apart at the seams."

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