The giant annual Farm Aid charity concert celebrates its 30th anniversary on September 22, 2015. Each year’s event has raised millions in funds to help out family farmers who feed America, the continuously running Farm Aid organization works tirelessly for the cause. Of course, there’s been a ton of great music across these past three decades as well.
The very first Farm Aid concert took place in Champaign, Illinois just two months after Bob Dylan made a fateful spontaneous remark on stage at Live Aid: “I hope that some of the money…maybe they can just take a little bit of it, maybe…one or two million, maybe…and use it, say, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms and, the farmers here, owe to the banks.”
Dylan’s suggestion prompted Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp to found Farm Aid virtually on the spot. It’s been an unending source of giving and community ever since, centered around the once-a-year big show, that’s played in locations all over America, from Texas to Virginia to Indiana to New Jersey.
Given the subject and the most obvious audience, country-tilted acts have always dominated the Farm Aid roster. Still, it’s a wide-open field (pun intended), and some genuine hard-and-heavy rockers have been happily welcomed to join the jam. Here are the top 10.
Supersuckers (1995, 2005, 2007)
Tucson-based garage rockers Supersuckers have recorded for grunge label Sub Pop and they’re a favorite of punk rockers and stoner metal fans alike. Farm Aid clearly loves the group, too, having invited them to perform three separate times across a span of twelve years.
Los Angeles punk pioneers X moved away toward their harder, harsher original sound in the mid-’80s and amped up their country and rockabilly elements. Given that plus the “roots rock” movement in vogue at the time, X was a natural to play the first Farm Aid.
Proto-metal boot-stompers Steppenwolf did what they do best at Farm Aid III: back vocalist John Kay as he whips the crowd into the frenzy with the eternal anthems “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Born to Be Wild.”
With the power ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is,” Foreigner scored the hugest smash of their career and one of the Top 5 biggest hits of 1985. Of course, the British-American hybrid supergroup (that’s why they call themselves Foreigner) performed their huge hit at the maiden Farm Aid, but they also blasted out their hard rockers “Hot Blooded” and “Urgent.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd (1992)
The only surprising aspect of Lynyrd Skynyrd playing Farm Aid is that Southern rock’s definitive hellraisers have only done so one time. They sure made it count, though, roaring out “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Call Me the Breeze.”
Joe Walsh (1986, 87, 92)
Electrifying guitar slinger Joe Walsh tore through his expected hits (awesomely) at Farm Aid in 1986 and ’87, accompanied, the first time, by Jon Bon Jovi. For his 1992 appearance, Walsh reworked “Old McDonald” into a blazing and amazing stoner rock jam.
Bon Jovi (1985-86)
Bon Jovi rocked the first two Farm Aid shows, still very much the prettiest pretty boys of hair metal at the time. A couple of decades later, the group would make a proper country album, but back in the mid-’80s, they went full glam, and then toned it down for the tender ballad, “Heart of America.”
Lou Reed (1985, 1987, 1990)
Yes, it seems extremely odd that quintessential New York City shock rocker Lou Reed took the stage at Farm Aid. It goes from odd to bizarre when considering that he went over so well the first time that he got invited back twice. In the bigger picture, Lou was always a brilliant performer and a hard-working activist dedicated to helping out those in need. So of course he played Farm Aid.
Guns N’ Roses (1990)
Guns N’ Roses founders Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin both hailed from the Indiana heartland and, as such, knew plenty of the life and the people for whom Farm Aid was created to benefit. By 1990, GNR was the biggest band in the world, and they’d kept fans desperately waiting for new material. Taking the stage at Farm Aid IV, GNR did not disappoint. They unveiled the epic “Civil War” and their legend only grew.
Van Halen (1985)
Coming in at #1 is the original Farm Aid’s history-making debut of the twin-titan guitar axis at the core of Van Halen Mach II. After Sammy Hagar did a killer solo set, brought out Eddie Van Halen and effectively, if unofficially, made it clear that he would be replacing David Lee Roth as the frontman of VH. “We don’t know any songs as a band,” Sammy told the ecstatic crowd, “so we’re just gonna jam on a couple of songs that we grew up on, okay?” The pair then launched into a monstrous, louder-than-life cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” and the future was set in place.