They say you reap what you sow, and with nearly four decades of activism championing U.S. farmers by some of popular music’s top songwriters, Farm Aid has cultivated plenty of goodwill in the live music world. The annual benefit concert started by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp returned over the weekend to Noblesville, IN for the first time in more than 20 years. Held at Ruoff Music Center, the 2023 edition of Farm Aid saw a number of high-profile surprise appearances, including a full set by Bob Dylan and sit-ins by Sturgill Simpson throughout the evening.
While Nelson, Young, and Mellencamp may have started Farm Aid back in 1985 (back when the latter still went by John Cougar Mellencamp), the annual concert and charity has continued to evolve over the years. In 2001—also the last time Farm Aid was held in Noblesville at the venue then known as Deer Creek—the original trio brought in fresh-faced hitmaker Dave Matthews to join the charity’s board of directors. Then in 2021, they invited rising country singer-songwriter Margo Price to join as the board’s first female member, continuing to evolve the event and non-profit with the times.
This year’s Farm Aid lineup reflected that changing tide with younger acts like Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Willie’s son Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real (a staple of the event), ascending folkie Allison Russell, The Black Opry, Margo Price, and plenty more. The event also honored its roots with the foundational headliners Nelson, Young, Mellencamp, and a duo set by Matthews and Tim Reynolds. Farm Aid 2023 was also an evening of Bringing It All Back Home, so to speak, as Bob Dylan returned for a surprise three-song set, marking his first Farm Aid appearance since the inaugural edition back in 1985.
Dylan’s unannounced performance between Young and the closing set by Willie Nelson & Family had added significance beyond his 38-year return. It was actually a comment by the iconic songsmith that sparked the event in the first place. While onstage at the 1985 Live Aid benefit concert, Dylan made the oft-misquoted remark, “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.”
With that, the seed was planted for the annual benefit that has to-date raised over $70 million “to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture,” per the event website. Fittingly, Dylan opened his surprise set backed by the Heartbreakers with “Maggie’s Farm”, his first performance of the Bringing It All Back Home classic since 2009. Dylan and the late Tom Petty‘s former backing band held the suspense as long as possible, taking the darkened stage all dressed in black during what was supposed to be Nelson’s 10:20 p.m. set time. As the band rolled into the rocking intro, Dylan’s unmistakable voice finally lifted the veil as the stage lights soon went up.
The further one digs, the more significant Dylan’s performance becomes. Most obvious was his physical position, standing and playing electric guitar rather than seated behind the piano like he is at most of his shows these days. Add in the fact that this wasn’t his backing band but rather 3/5 of the Heartbreakers—guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, and drummer Steve Ferrone—with the rest of the group filled out by members of Campbell’s other band The Dirty Knobs. The collaboration was noteworthy on both ends, as Dylan rarely performs without his own band, hasn’t played with the Heartbreakers in over 20 years, and these three Heartbreakers have rarely played together since Petty’s death in 2017.
But all of those analytical details likely weren’t going through anyone’s head when Dylan began rifling through a set featuring some of his most cherished classics. He followed up “Maggie’s Farm” (which closed his 1985 Farm Aid set) with 1965 gem “Positively 4th Street”. With the Heartbreakers by his side, Dylan was able to channel his revolutionary transition into a rock musician that turned the music world on its head back in the mid-’60s. Rounding out the set was the bluesy “Ballad of a Thin Man”, and without a word to the audience at any point, the band walked offstage. Throughout the performance, Ruoff Music Center’s screens remained off, keeping fans on the lawn literally in the dark and leaving them to question whether or not they really just saw Bob Dylan play.
Bob Dylan, The Heartbreakers – Farm Aid – Noblesville, IN – 9/23/23 – Full Set
Even before that, Farm Aid 2023 was already a notable entry in the event’s ongoing history. Prior to Dylan, the prevailing highlight of the evening was a pair of appearances by elusive alt-country badass Sturgill Simpson, who first emerged to lend his axe for all of Bob Weir & Wolf Bros‘ 45-minute, three-song set. Simpson, along with Lukas Nelson who also joined for the whole set, stepped outside his usual lyric-driven confines and into the improvisational ether for a lengthy airing of the Grateful Dead‘s open-ended springboard “Dark Star”.
Bob Weir & Wolf Bros, Sturgill Simpson – “Dark Star” – 9/23/23
With Price joining in on the closing cover of The Crickets‘ “Not Fade Away”, it appeared Weir, Simpson, and Price were getting some practice in before they meet again on the beach in Mexico for the Dead Ahead destination event in January. Simpson later returned to the stage for a four-song sit-in with Price, trading off originals and even covering Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” in a telling sign of things to come.
Bob Weir & Wolf Bros, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price – “Not Fade Away” (The Crickets) – 9/23/23
Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson – “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers) – 9/23/23
Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson – “Life Of Sin” – 9/23/23
Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson – “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)” – 9/23/23
Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson – “Paper Cowboy” – 9/23/23
Elsewhere, the pillars of Farm Aid delivered the sets that have served as the bedrock of the event for nearly 40 years. Hometown hero John Mellencamp had the crowd of fellow Hoosiers in the palm of his hand, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds played the hits, and Neil Young delivered a sadly short four-song solo acoustic set—likely ceding some of his stage time to the following Dylan set. Finally, ending the entire evening was Willie Nelson & Family who powered through their 18-song set to close out Farm Aid just around midnight.
Willie Nelson & Family – Farm Aid – Noblesville, IN – 9/23/23 – Full Set
[Video: Outlaw Country King]
Check out a gallery of images from Farm Aid 2023 below courtesy of photographer Ron Valle, along with a collection of pro-shot videos from the festival.
Willie Nelson & Family – “I Been To Georgia On A Fast Train” – 9/23/23
Willie Nelson & Family – “Good Hearted Woman” – 9/23/23
Willie Nelson & Family – “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” – 9/23/23
Willie Nelson & Family – “On The Road Again” – 9/23/23
Willie Nelson & Family – “On The Road Again” – 9/23/23
Neil Young – “Comes A Time” – 9/23/23
Neil Young – “Heart Of Gold” – 9/23/23
Neil Young – “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?” – 9/23/23
Bob Weir & Wolf Bros – “Truckin'” – 9/23/23
Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds – “So Damn Lucky” – 9/23/23
Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds – “Crush” – 9/23/23
Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds – “Lie In Our Graves” – 9/23/23
John Mellencamp – “Jack & Diane” – 9/23/23
John Mellencamp – “Pink Houses” – 9/23/23
John Mellencamp – “Crumblin’ Down”/”Gloria” (Van Morrison) – 9/23/23
Margo Price – “Been To The Mountain” – 9/23/23