During my attendance of FarmAid 2014, I heard the event called everything from a celebration to the last dying breathe of humanity. An argument can be fairly made for either side of this seemingly consequential and Apocalyptic spectrum. Neil Young defiantly stated in more or less words during the initial press conference for FarmAid, “Not happy to be here. But I have to be here, and if hell freezes over I expect to still be here.”
This penultimately sums up the overall theme and purpose of FarmAid, before Willie Nelson nodded quietly and thanked everyone for coming. His words closed the press conference. It was this quiet and simple reflection from Nelson that clashed against Neil Young’s bombastic yet disappointed words of inevitability. Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Willie Nelson began FarmAid 29 years ago, and they are still out there all these years later playing the same songs, lambasting the same corporate entities, and become increasingly impatient and lost with each passing year.
Neil Young said he thought FarmAid would be a single time event, and it would blow the door wide open on this whole thing. His reserved determination and insistence on still being here 29 years later showed blatant naivety, and less-than-subtle cynicism.
So what is FarmAid all about? For the concert goers, it was a celebration of their favorite classic rock and folk artists gathering together under one roof. It was an opportunity to smoke pot in public with little consequence, enjoy the only $15 craft beer they will likely buy for the year, and soak in the sounds of indie folk acts with a rudimentary message and some clever licks to back up their country leanings. Yet for the artists, particularly the headlining artists detailed above, this was another year of confounding absurdity- a way for them to do what they do best while encapsulating their presence in good rock and roll and country. If it was not for Dave Matthews, Mellencamp and others, FarmAid’s attendance would certainly be, well, not very high.
For the artists, FarmAid is a running example of persistence, obligation, and the big mad machine of corporate politicking. Neil Young spent half of his set railing against the Monsanto agrochemical company and North Carolina’s own Senator Richard Burr, who knocked out legislation to promote organic eating in a masked promise to ‘streamline’ food protocols and standardizations. Young’s performance of “Rockin in the Free World” lacked all celebratory adoration for his home country of freedom. It was turned into a somber acoustic ballad. You could almost feel Young channeling irony and sadness with every strum.
FarmAid 2014 is a weird cultural idiom of crowd mentality indifference, self-reflecting artists of high stature, and organic food enthusiasts that love what they do far more than the artists enjoy being on stage. I came to find FarmAid 2014 peculiar and somewhat depressing.
I arrived far earlier than anyone else, excited at the prospects of potentially finding a huge empty venue with my favorite folk and rock artists talking by the side stage. When I signed up in the press area, I was rewarded with a bag full of goodies, all organically themed of course. This included a book about pesticides usage in mainstream farming, a small container of lip balm cow fat, some organic cake, and herb-themed lotion that smelled exactly as the label stated.
I grabbed the cake, and placed it into my pocket, of course, and returned the rest to the car. Feeling enthused, I entered the venue and was escorted to the media tent. Here was an excited collective of generally awkward 20-somethings. We were glued to our laptops, and photographers were cleaning lenses, checking their bags, and getting ready for the press conference which is regarded as one of the more promising parts of FarmAid.
The press conference included the top four headliners of the evening: for the last time, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, and Willie Nelson. Fifth billing Jack White was not present at the conference, which was a disappointment given his overall oddness and the sure bet that he would say something weird, deeply introspective, and absurdly baffling all within a two minute span.
The press conference was accompanied by what should be the stars of the show. Six total local farmers that fought adversity, corporate greed, political restrictions, and other issues to turn their farm into a local and organic supplier it should be. Details aside, these farmers faced oppressive legislation and financial turmoil to0 fight against entities that essentially forced them to provide what they and most acknowledged individuals consider to be ‘poisonous’ food.
Not a single word was spent on music during the conference. I eyed the attendants complacently when farmer Dorathy spoke for close to 15 minutes about her trials and tribulations promoting organic farming and building a farming initiative all the way back in the mid-80’s.
Mellencamp spoke early in the conference, the first ‘celebrity’ to do so, and his voice was sullen. After a minute or two he closed with the words, “these are the things that keep me up at night, and that is all I have to say about that.”
What he said preceding that, of course, is his general grievances over the school system’s lunch menu of poison tacos and the embrace of farmer’s markets and the good they do, even on the small scale. Mellencamp did not stand up, the only performing artist to not do so, and his demeanor was closeted and reserved. This is a lot different from his performance in the evening where he dressed in a stylish black tux and chanted the chorus to “Jack & Diane” to a sprawling crowd of pot-smoking hippies. But even his showing seemed subdued. He was complacent, rolling through the motions the 29th time over three decades of the same message and the same goals and the same thematic unity of a better future for our children.
FarmAid 2014 is not considered a celebration, at least according to Neil Young when he spoke during the conference. He was the most fired up, contrary to Mellencamp’s somber introspection. Even generally humorous and upbeat somewhat newcomer Dave Matthews was complacently admiring towards the farmers, while anything but self-congratulatory. He spoke for only as few minutes, and applauded the farmers for their overlooked efforts, calling them the real ‘heroes.’
Moments after Neil Young spoke, the hostess of the evening claimed that FarmAid is a celebration of organic food, but also a powerful message. This contradicted Young’s moments ago. It also created a sort of dizzying paradox? So this is a celebration of what exactly? Organic food and rock music? The rock musician certainly doesn’t think so.
The press conference wrapped up after two hours, time mostly spent discussing the realities of modern farming and how greedy corporate entities are controlling our flow of food. After some reality smackdowning, I was ready to see some good old fashioned rock music- my bread and butter, and the reason for this entire event, really. Right?
Yet after the first couple sets, I ran into a problematic and reoccurring problem for the evening. I had nowhere to sit. Press people were not provided a place to sit or go to, leaving the lot of us wandering the grounds. I understand clearly why I cannot just sit down in a seat, for a paid attendee is likely there presently or in the near future. But the problem compounded when I realized that my lack of a seat was quite a literal ordeal. The staff members were not allowing any press people to hang in the median between section one and two or two and three. I was also stopped from going to the lawn area multiple times. Towards the end of the evening, I was told I was not allowed in visible stage line, and could either continue walking the premises or stand outside the line of sight for the stage (this is a very serious claim- I was assured directly from multiple staff members that standing one foot OUT of stage view was allowed, but the second I crossed into stage view I was to be removed and potentially escorted out).
This might sound sheepheaded of me, or preposterously indulgent. Towards the latter half of the evening, the lawn remained unmonitored. But it was also a clusterfuck of excess, with little visible lawn left to make a spot out of. The absurdity of not being able to literally see the stage while standing in place forced me to enjoy the exterior aspects of FarmAid, which there was plenty of. And it did not take long for me to abandon seeing the bands perform, until I gave it another valiant effort when Jack White and Dave Matthews performed (to little avail).
FarmAid is a culture of modern farmers, and if this was really a celebration of farming culture I was to join in the fun. The homegrown tent featured upwards of 30 booths. Each booth provided a different take on organic culture. Hydroponic systems were explained in detail. Organic crafted beer was put on display next to homegrown salads and a number of regional farmers promoting their make-up, skin ointments, and other items.
This provided raw insight into what FarmAid is designed to be about. But it was the hourly conferences that really shed a light on the underbelly of FarmAid. I attended all four conferences, missing parts here and there due to water and snack breaks. Press had a tent with some sandwiches and water, which helped save me countless dollars from the concessions.
It was at one of these conferences where I felt that bludgeon crack to the back of the head. The attendance rate ranged from 10 to 60 people per conference. This was far off from the total attendance upwards of 15,000. It was an insular moment of congratulatory responsibility. The conference members discussed the industry, the association between music and farming, and most importantly, the effectiveness of FarmAid.
It was at the 6:00 conferences where I heard a gentlemen call FarmAid a “last final grasp on humanity.” This was Milo Gonzalez, frontman of the experimental folk group Insects vs. Robots. He spent roughly 10 minutes talking about “my generation” and how this is the last time we will be able to stop the corporate wheel from truly overtaking our food for good. FarmAid became symbolic not of a successful run at changing the cultural perspective, but a concurrent series of 29 smaller battles in a borderline inevitable losing war.
This somber moment was distressing to the 60 people in the tent that cared. But the tens of thousands enjoying Jamey Johnson perform country ballads missed this context, a balmy lost opportunity to shed some light to why FarmAid is really happening at all.
It was after that conference where I relaxed under a tree to avoid some mild drizzle. A few moments went by before I was interrupted by an older gentlemen. He had raggedy clothes, and explained that he traveled from the Northeast on a bus to attend the show. He had a plastic bag in his hand with papers, what he explained was “all his possessions.” We talked a bit about the artists, how tired we were, and about the Grateful Dead performance in 2013 which I was confident only happened in his dreams. He never asked for money. He never got the chance. A man walked up to the two of us. An overweight Spanish gentlemen, shaking modestly and erratically scanning the surroundings. He went on to explain “how funny it is things like this happen,” and he said he has something we might like. I kept quiet, disheartened from being grossly interrupted in my moment where I was thinking and relaxing. The two men continued talking, and the Spanish man asked, “you want one?” I looked up and he pointed his palm out. In it was two small seed-like items. I said no. He offered one to the Grateful Dead fan, and they plopped it on their tongue. The Spanish man said, “let it hang for a minute.” The man nodded, and then it dropped from his mouth. He cursed quietly, picked it up, and let it sit back on his tongue. The overweight Spanish gentlemen said “I am already losing my ability to talk. Man, it’s weird how shit like this happens.”
Throughout the venue sat large cans for disposing of items. Next to every trashcan was two accompany cans. One was green and labeled ‘COMPOST.’ The other was either green or blue and labeled ‘RECYCLING.’ These recycling bins also had a concave plastic cover that fitted bottles and cans. I saw many people walk beside me and pass me, only to drop their water bottle in the trashcan. Compost, which is essentially anything that is not recyclable for it is grounded up and used as fertilizer of a sort, was half-filled compared to the trashcans. By the latter half of the evening the trashcans were filled and people dropped items around the trashcan or just on the ground.
This set forward an idea of total crowd indifference. The entire purpose of FarmAid ran contrary to the mentality of a crowd and the simple pursuit of music. This seemingly small action presented a bigger idea- what is not convenient is not accessible. Convenience will defeat morals.
I spoke with New York City based country artist Jesse Lenat. His introspective and largely earnest songwriting lended well to this idea of FarmAid being an effort of excess over productivity. “It’s a crowd mentality, man.” This was Lenat’s fourth time on FarmAid circuit. He spoke about his first appearance in 2007 in New York City. He was introduced warmly, and during his performance John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson stood stage right, watching and eyeing his every strum and every vocal cry. Lenat has been good friends with Mellencamp for a number of years, and you can see Lenat’s fascination with smartly written though subtly dark country rock. Lenat seemed a lot less cynical than Mellencamp. A hope coursed through his tone, his expectations, and his goals. Then again, four years in the circuit is far off from 29.
Lenat has been intimately tied to the FarmAid ethos. His own father was run off his farm decades prior, and in his parent’s final cries, the farm was forced into foreclosure and they were kicked off the land for reasons Lenat did not particularly elaborate on.
He was the perfect person to understand this clash of ideas- the ideal pursuit of an organic future and the mentality and resoluteness that comes from, well, a high-profile rock concert.
So is a music concert the best venue for something of this caliber? The ultimate question of FarmAid’s productivity is watered down in celebrity culture, nostalgia artists, and the fun of escapism. Music is many things. Just as it is a voice to speak about the fallacies of our modern culture, it is a place where we can escape to. The general acceptance of music is often the antithesis of cultural change, especially something that seems to be run moot in a massive concert that procures waste and crowd indifference.
Music is an exploration down the rabbit hole of self-indulgence. Most artists write music to look either inside themselves or look at the outside world. It is only doing something to the greater culture in an indirect manner. Truthfully, music is a way for artist to gain a grip on their own internalizations. And fans experience that remotely. They enjoy this music to look at themselves. We enjoy music because we are broke, confused, and horribly flawed people. The best music comes from pain. The best listening experiences come from embracing the pain og the musician so we hurt less.
Music is all so insular. FarmAid 2014 was not friendly to press. Corporate giants LiveNation patrolled the grounds at all times, stifling my ability to dissect FarmAid and promoting expensive beers and lukewarm and likely microwaved $6 slices of pizza. FarmAid 2014 provided an outlet for musicians to, once again, decry big corporate-sponsored government and promote organic eating. The calamity of this grand event of country rock ran contrary to the ideas of FarmAid. What is designed as a way to promote a message through music became a way to enjoy music while generally dismissing the greater tribulations of our big battle. If we can’t win the battle against our food, we set a precedent that will course through every orifice of our culture. Unfortunately, FarmAid is, unintentionally and accidentally, about the music, man.
Ryan Merkel is a cool writer guy and contributor all over the internet, from blogs on music to magazines about music to sites about playing music. He is currently founder of SunState Investing and is head editor of the music entertainment magazine, CultureTease. He has written two novels, and is currently working on a third full-length novel, surprisingly, not about music. His novel “Splatter the Noise” earned accolades for independent publishing. Be sure to check out: www.sunstateinvesting.com
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