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Farm Aid era: 15 years of song and counting


Back in the 1980s, pop musicians believed that the best way to save the world - or at least to help solve a specific problem - was to hold a benefit concert. Perhaps the biggest and splashiest was 1985's Live Aid, which found some 1.5 billion people watching concert action broadcast from London and Philadelphia.

Things have changed a lot since then. The last attempt to unite the world in song was 1999's Net Aid, which presented concerts on three continents to general indifference. Obviously, the era of the media- saturated mega-benefit is long past.

That doesn't mean pop musicians have given up on charity concerts, however. Indeed, Farm Aid - which was inspired by a remark Bob Dylan made at Live Aid, asking "Wouldn't it be great if we did something for our own farmers right here in America?" - is still going strong, 15 years after its first concert in Champaign, Ill.

On Sunday, Farm Aid organizers Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp will headline Farm Aid 2000 at the Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Va. Joining them will be a host of musicians, including rockers Barenaked Ladies and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; country stars Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt and Sawyer Brown; and even polka king Jimmy Sturr.

This is the second year Farm Aid has been at the Nissan Pavilion, a location organizers say they like because its proximity to Washington makes it easier for artists to lobby on behalf of family farmers. This being an election year, that lobbying is likely to be intense, and concert-goers can look forward to seeing Tipper Gore playing drums (!) onstage with Willie Nelson.

"We salute Tipper for giving so generously of her time and sharing our commitment to saving America's family farms," said Nelson in a statement to the press. "She understands the importance of supporting those who put food on America's tables." Hopefully, she also understands the importance of keeping time.

This being Farm Aid's 15th anniversary, the organization has also released its first album. Imaginatively titled "Farm Aid, Volume One: Live" (Redline 50032), the double-disc set compiles 25 performances by 20 acts.

It doesn't quite survey the full 15-year history of Farm Aid, as all but one performance dates from the '90s. Most are by roots-rock and country acts, with Farm Aid chiefs Nelson, Young and Mellencamp dominating.

Nelson, for example, appears on three different tracks, performing "City of New Orleans" with the Highwaymen, "Peach Picking Time Down in Georgia" with Beck, and "Sitting In Limbo" with his own band.

There are some selections that work outside the box, among them a lively rendition of "Crash" by the Dave Matthews Band, and a surprisingly lush arrangement of "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys. But for the most part, the biggest surprises come from country singers Trisha Yearwood and Marty Stuart, whose selections ("Wrong Side of Memphis" and "Now That's Country," respectively) rock a lot harder than non-country fans might expect.

Where "Farm Aid, Volume One" falls short is in tying the urgency of the issue to the power of the music. Although a few songs - most notably, Mellencamp's "Rain on the Scarecrow" and Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road" - touch tangentially on the issue, there's little in the music that would make most listeners reflect on the lives of family farmers.

It's not for lack of trying, though.

Young does perform a mournful ballad called "Last of His Kind (The Farm Aid Song)." But with lyrics such as "In the struggle for parity, not one man's voice can sound/Because the foundation of the conglomerate is firmly in the ground," it's no "We Are the World."

'Farm Aid 2000'

Who: Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Barenaked Ladies, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Alan Jackson, Sawyer Brown, Pat Green, Travis Tritt, Arlo Guthrie, North Mississippi Allstars, Jimmy Sturr, Badi Assad Menagerie, Greta Gaines, Cowboy's Nightmare, Chris DiCroce, Shannon Curfman

Where: Nissan Pavilion at Stone Ridge, Bristow, Va.

When: Sunday, Sept. 17, Noon

Admission: $27.50 - $65

Call: 410-481-7328

'Farm Aid, Volume One: Live' (Redline Entertainment) ***

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