Around 10:20 p.m. on Saturday night, a shadowy group of figures walked onto the Farm Aid stage at the Ruoff Music Center in Noblesville, Indiana. This was supposed to be the moment where Wille Nelson wrapped up the night, but there was no sign of the Red Headed Stranger or his band. Instead, another act was plugging in instruments on the darkened stage. There was no announcement of any kind, and the large screens on both sides of the stage went completely blank for the first time all day. It took about 15 seconds for the screams to start once the light hit the face of the guy in the middle.
Bob Dylan was back on the Farm Aid stage for the first time since the inaugural event in 1985, which was inspired by his off-hand comments at Live Aid a few months earlier about helping family farmers. Joining him were 3/5th of the Heartbreakers — guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, and drummer Steve Ferrone — alongside members of Campbell’s other group, the Dirty Knobs. Dylan was playing electric guitar.
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This was an extraordinary moment for many reasons. Dylan almost never makes unannounced appearances or performs without his own band; he hasn’t played with the Heartbreakers in 20 years; Campbell, Tench, and Ferrone have rarely performed together in public since Petty’s death; Dylan usually plays piano at his shows; there wasn’t even a tiny hint anywhere throughout the day that this might happen.
It became even more surreal once it became clear they were opening with “Maggie’s Farm,” which was their closer at the first Farm Aid. Dylan hadn’t played the song anywhere since 2009, but this wasn’t a rearranged Never Ending Tour rendition only recognizable by the lyrics. This was Dylan and the band largely recreating the sound of the original 1965 recording.
They followed it up with “Positively 4th Street,” another 1965 throwback. On this one, Campbell channeled guitarist Mike Bloomfield, Tench flawlessly executed Al Kooper’s organ parts, and the hardcore Dylan fans in the audience had to blink a few times to make sure they weren’t dreaming. Dylan last played the song in 2013, but it’s hard to remember a time it sounded anything like this. It was quite possibly sometime in early 1966 when the Hawks were backing him.
The mini-set wrapped up with “Ballad of a Thin Man.” This was yet another 1965 tune played to studio perfection. Before the crowd could fully process what happened, Dylan and the band walked off. They didn’t say a single word to the audience at any point. And since the screens remained off during the entire set, it’s quite possible some fans on the lawn didn’t even realize what had just taken place, since they could barely see any of it.
What exactly brought about this un-billed set? Is there any scenario Dylan tours with them next year and plays sets centered around his Sixties catalog? That’s very hard to imagine, but so was this Farm Aid set before it happened. Dylan has east coast dates with his standard band throughout October and November. Beyond that, it’s impossible to guess what will happen.
The Dylan/Heartbreakers set is likely to dominate the coverage of this year’s Farm Aid, but it was just one of many amazing moments. Here are eight others.
The Owner of the Indianapolis Colts Covers Pink Floyd and Warren Zevon
When you have over $4 billion, you can basically do whatever the hell you want. And when Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay decided he wanted to use some of his fortune to assemble a rock band that he’d front, he was able to lure drummer Kenny Aronoff, guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and other top pros into the project. Irsay gave Farm Aid a check for $1 million this year, which is likely why his band was allowed to perform at the show. But even though Irsay is far from a great vocalist, he poured his heart into Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers Guns and Money,” and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” Shepherd crushed David Gilmour’s guitar solo on the latter song, and the whole set was a lot more fun than anyone had a reasonable right to expect.
Ann Wilson Takes Charge
After singing just two songs, Irsay walked off the stage and handed his band over to Heart’s Ann Wilson. This was a smart move even though this was now the Jim Irsay Band Minus Jim Irsay. Wilson belted out the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” and Heart’s “Barracuda” was stunning power. Let’s hope she finds a way to reconnect with her sister Nancy at some point soon and get Heart back on the road. She remains one of the most gifted singers in rock.
The Black Opry Wows The Crowd
Early in the day, the Black Opry featuring Lori Rayne, Tyler Bryant, and Kyshona took the stage. They had a tough task since many fans were still shuffling in and the crowd was largely unfamiliar with their work. Their set was also delayed by audio problems. But once they started singing, the crowd was wowed into a hushed silence. The three singers took turns signing their own country-tinged tunes and cheering each other on. They left to a huge standing ovation. Hopefully this is the start of a new Farm Aid tradition.
The Nelson Boys Deliver
Just days after playing the Roxy with Neil Young, Micah Nelson played a solo set early in the day at Farm Aid that climaxed with a splendid “Everything Is Bullshit.” He’s still battling the viral infection Vestibular Neuritis and had to utilize a walking stick, but was otherwise in fine form. Later in the afternoon, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real had the entire amphitheater singing along to “Find Yourself.” They’ve been Farm Aid regulars for quite a while, and they’re better and better every single year.
Bob Weir Teams Up With Margo Price and Sturgill Simpson
Bob Weir brought out Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price for his brief set with Wolf Bros. They opened with “Truckin,” transitioned into “Dark Star,” and closed out with “Not Fade Away.” Margo Price joined them on the last one. Dead and Co. may be a thing of the past after their farewell tour this summer, but it’s clear that Weir is nowhere ready to retire himself.
Margo Price Covers Tom Petty
Margo Price officially joined the Farm Aid board in 2021, but she became part of the family long before that. Her high-energy set, which featured Sturgill Simpson on four songs, climaxed with a cover of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Last Dance With Mary Jane.” If Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell weren’t trying to keep their set a secret, they could have come out and joined her.
Neil Young Unplugs
Anyone hoping that Neil Young was going to bring the Santa Monica Flyers to Indianapolis and play a mini version of his Tonight’s The Night set from the earlier this week at the Roxy was disappointed. He took the stage solo acoustic and played a mere four songs: “Comes a Time,” “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?,” “Love Earth,” and “Heart of Gold,” pausing between each one to talk about the importance of protecting family farms. This would have been more fun if he decided to play with Promise of the Real like at many Farm Aids of the past, but he surely knew his friend Bob was coming on next, and wanted to give him some of his time. That’s a compromise we can accept. Next year, however, it’s time for a reunion with the Real. It’s been way too long.
John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews Play the Hits
It wouldn’t be Farm Aid without John Mellencamp breaking out “Scarecrow,” “Small Town,” and “Pink Houses.” After spending much of the year on the road, his band was extremely tight. And John was in extremely good spirits as he played to what’s basically a hometown crowd. Directly before his set, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds had the entire place singing along to “Satellite,” “Crush,” and other old favorites. The full Dave Matthews Band still put on a great show, but it’s often more satisfying to see Dave in this mode.
Willie Nelson Sends Everyone Home Smiling
Months after his 90th birthday, and in the middle of a pretty grueling tour, Willie Nelson somehow still had the energy to close out the show with an 18-song set. Lukas Nelson took over lead vocals for a killer rendition of “Texas Flood,” Micah Nelson revived “Everything Is Bullshit” from earlier in the show, and many of the day’s performers – including Young, Weir, Matthews, Price, and Mellencamp – came out for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “It’s Hard to Be Humble.” Even without a surprise Bob Dylan set, this would have been one of the finest Farm Aids in recent memory. When you factor in Dylan, it was certainly one of the very best Farm Aids since this whole thing began in 1985. Topping it next year will be very hard.
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