Willie Nelson, Neil Young, others keep message

CLOSEThe crowd at Farm Aid 2019 gets into the music of Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. It was the second time Farm Aid came to Wisconsin in the 34-year-old nonprofit's history. The event came to help put a focus on the crisis facing dairy farms in Wisconsin.

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Spectators on the hill portion of Alpine Valley Music Theatre sit through a light rain shower while early acts perform at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in East Troy, Wis. It was Farm Aid's second appearance in Wisconsin; the benefit concert designed to raise awareness of and support for family farming was held at Milwaukee's Miller Park in 2010.

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Joel Greeno, president of the Madison-based group Family Farm Defenders, poses with the 1935 Allis-Chalmers tractor he drove part of the way to Farm Aid 2019, being held Saturday at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.People line up under overcast skies to get into Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy for Farm Aid 2019 Saturday, Sept. 21. It's just the second time that the concert dedicated to promoting and saving family farms has been held in Wisconsin.The line forms outside the gates at Alpine Valley Music Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, before Farm Aid. The concert was being held in Wisconsin in part to recognize the plight of family dairy farms in the state.People are making their way into Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy for Farm Aid 2019. Two hours before showtime, traffic was already backed up significantly.The press conference at Farm Aid 2019 kicks off, with the nonprofit's Hall of Fame board members on hand.

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Family farmer and featured speaker Sarah Lloyd greets people attending the opening news conference at Farm Aid 2019 on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. Farm Aid came to Wisconsin, just the second time the event has been held in the state, to help focus on the plight of dairy farmers. Wisconsin has led the nation in farm bankruptcies for three years in a row, and dairy farms are closing at an unprecedented rate in the state, with more than 1,000 shutting down since 2018.

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Willie Nelson, right, thanks longtime Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar during a news conference Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley  Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. This is the second time Farm Aid has been held in Wisconsin in the 34-year-old nonprofit's history. The concert is being held in Wisconsin to bring a focus to the disaster facing family dairy farms in the state, where more than 1,000 have shut down since 2018.

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Neil Young, center, speaks at a news conference for Farm Aid Saturday, September 21, 2019 at Alpine Valley in East Troy, Wis. He is flanked by John Mellencamp, left, and Dave Matthews, right. The three music stars are on the board of directors of Farm Aid; Mellencamp and Young founded the organization with Willie Nelson 34 years ago to raise awareness of the loss of family farms and to promote family-farm-based agriculture.

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Dave Matthews, right, speaks at a news comference at Farm Aid 2019 as Neil Young, left, looks on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. Matthews joined the board of Farm Aid in 2001; Young was one of the organization's three founders, with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp.

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Singer Nathaniel Rateliff speaks at a news conference at Farm Aid 2019 Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. Rateliff and his band, the Night Sweats, were among the headliners for the all-day Farm Aid concert, an annual event bringing awareness of and support for family farming in America.

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Lukas Nelson speaks at the pre-Farm Aid news conference Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. Nelson and his band, The Promise of the Real, have been on the bill at Farm Aid before; Nelson's father, music legend Willie Nelson, is one of the founders of the 34-year-old event, designed to raise awareness of and support for family farming in America.

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Tanya Tucker, center, speaks at a news conference for Farm Aid 2019 Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 at Alpine Valley in East Troy, Wis. Country music veteran Tucker was one of the early performers on the lineup for this year's Farm Aid concert, only the second to be held in Wisconsin in the organization's 34-year history.

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Family farmers Bert Paris right, and his wife, Trish, speak at a news conference at Farm Aid 2019 Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 at Alpine Valley in East Troy, Wis. (That's country music veteran Tanya Tucker sitting behind them, with the pink-tinged hair.) This is the second time Farm Aid is taking place in Wisconsin in the 34-year-old nonprofit's history. Farm Aid returned to Wisconsin this year to put a spotlight on the plight of family dairy farms in the state. More than 1,000 dairy farms have shut down in Wisconsin since 2018.

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English singer-songwriter Yola performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. It was the second time Farm Aid is taking place in Wisconsin in the 34-year-old nonprofit's history, and the first Farm Aid performance for Yola, who released her first solo album earlier this year.

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Tanya Tucker performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley  Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. It was Tucker's first appearance at Farm Aid since 1985 - the first Farm Aid concert.

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Lukas Nelson, and his band Promise of the Real are joined onstage by the Night Sweats, far left, Margo Price and Yola, and Nathaniel Rateliff, far right (in white overshirt) at Farm Aid 2019 on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.Margo Price performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley  Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

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A couple poses for a photo, "American Gothic" style, in the Home Grown Village area featuring food, agriculture education and advocacy booths at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

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Robin John of the Oneida Nation demonstrates how to shell a cob of heirloom white corn at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

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Country singer Jamey Johnson (with Randy Houser in the background) performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

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Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats  perform at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

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The crowd sways to the beat of Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats during Farm Aid 2019 on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

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Country star Luke Combs performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

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A couple dances as Luke Combs performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

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Bonnie Raitt performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

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Dave Matthews performs an acoustic set with bandmate Tim Reynolds at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. Matthews has been on the board of Farm Aid since 2001.

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John Mellencamp performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. Mellencamp founded Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in 1985.

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Neil Young plays piano, left, while Lukas Nelson plays guitar at the opening of Young's set at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. Young co-founded Farm Aid in 1985 with fellow singer-songwriters (and music legends) Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp.

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Neil Young performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley  Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. Young co-founded Farm Aid 34 years ago with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp.

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It was a long, sometimes rainy day at Alpine Valley Music Theatre on Saturday, but the stellar lineup for Farm Aid 2019 still brought plenty of warmth and star power to the East Troy amphitheater. 

Farm Aid’s second trip to Wisconsin in 34 years (last time was in 2010, at Miller Park) was designed to bring the focus to the plight of the state’s dairy farmers. 

It also was about the music. Here’s what the 30,000 or so who came to Alpine got to hear at the daylong concert. 

RELATED: Farm Aid 2019 focuses on the dairy crisis, loss of small family farms

Willie Nelson & Family CLOSE

Willie Nelson speaks at the Farm Aid 2019 press conference. The music festival is in Wisconsin this year to raise money and awareness for dairy farmers here.
Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

At past Farm Aid concerts, Willie Nelson used to pop up for lots of sets. But Saturday, the 86-year-old Nelson, who had to cancel some shows last month for health reasons, saved his lone appearance for the end. 

Nelson was in good form, his set starting as it often does, with solid renditions of “Whiskey River” and “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” followed later by a festive one-two punch of “It’s All Going to Pot” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

Nelson really lit up trading blues licks on his battered acoustic guitar Trigger with his electric-guitar-strumming son Lukas. And 12 hours of music came to a spirited end with several stars of the day — Neil Young, Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Margo Price (and her baby) — singing “I’ll Fly Away” together, and Nelson giving his cowboy hat a heck of a toss into the crowd. 

Neil Young plays piano, left, while Lukas Nelson plays guitar at the opening of Young’s set at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. Young co-founded Farm Aid in 1985 with fellow singer-songwriters (and music legends) Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp. (Photo: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Neil Young & Promise of the Real 

Sets fell behind schedule all day, but the delay was significant for Neil Young, who took the stage with Lukas Nelson’s band Promise of the Real 52 minutes later than planned. 

Young also was the most talkative of Farm Aid’s performers, but the crowd appreciated Young speaking about their issues, as he talked of family farmers rejuvenating the Earth and encouraged shoppers to buy from farmers markets and avoid processed foods from big-box stores, and the farmers embraced the message and chorus of “Homegrown.” And “Rockin’ in the Free World” was Farm Aid’s finest moment — guitar-blazing, drums-pummeling, face-melting chaos, as good rock should be — led by a snarling, screaming Young, with visceral shredding to match. 

John Mellencamp performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. Mellencamp founded Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in 1985. (Photo: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

John Mellencamp 

When John Mellencamp last played Farm Aid in Wisconsin, at Miller Park in 2010, he was the day’s MVP, with people dancing on top of the Brewers dugout for his hits-stuffed set.

There wasn’t as much dancing this time out, not even during a classic like “Small Town,” because the muddiest mix of the day dampened the set more than any of the rain did earlier. When Mellencamp’s vocals did rise above the band, his voice was significantly more scorched compared to a tour kickoff in Milwaukee in February. 

It did convey the outrage of oppressed farmers’ anthem “Rain on the Scarecrow.” And there were no sound issues when the band left Mellencamp alone to play “Jack & Diane” on acoustic guitar, with the crowd sweetly joining in on the chorus (and playfully getting chastised for skipping a verse).

Dave Matthews, right, and Tim Reynolds perform at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. (Photo: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds 

Dave Matthews watched his Farm Aid set stolen out from under him — and he couldn’t have seemed happier. 

He was joined by Dave Matthews Band guitarist Tim Reynolds for a two-man acoustic set, and with the full group off for the night, Reynolds could really let his acoustic guitar fly. He didn’t just fill out songs like “Ants Marching” and “So Damn Lucky” with layers and layers of dazzling notes. He accomplished things on that acoustic guitar that seemed impossible, time and again, swiftly slipping from twangy bluegrass to head-spinning helicopter strikes, the notes scaling at the end of “Marching” to implausibly high pitch squeals, with seemingly no end to the ascent.

At one point, Matthews jokingly imitated Reynolds’ versatility, still clearly dazzled after all their years performing together. If Matthews’ elastic voice could be likened to taffy, Reynolds’ guitar playing was pure liquid.

Bonnie Raitt performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. (Photo: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Bonnie Raitt 

Alpine Valley Music Theatre — long heralded as one of the country’s most beautiful amphitheaters — is also the site of a tragic chapter in rock history: the Aug. 27, 1990, helicopter crash that killed Stevie Ray Vaughan, three members of Eric Clapton’s team and a pilot. 

During her Farm Aid set, Raitt reminisced about watching Vaughan play, and dedicated an astounding solo acoustic cover of Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” to Vaughan and other seminal blues artists. 

Raitt and the band also covered “I Believe I’m in Love With You” from the Fabulous Thunderbirds, led by Stevie’s brother Jimmie. And she dedicated a touching version of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” to any oppressed women watching at Alpine and on the live stream. 

“We’re going to blow the roof off the place,” Raitt promised near set’s end, before dialing back expectations with a smile. “Well, I don’t know about that, but we’re gonna give it a good licking.”

Raitt and the band busted out the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” climaxing with Raitt’s delicious blues guitar interpretations of Milwaukee native Jerry Harrison’s trippy synths. Stevie Ray would approve.

Country star Luke Combs performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. (Photo: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Luke Combs 

There was no hotter star at Farm Aid 2019 — and practically in country music — than Luke Combs. His album “This One’s for You” is still the top-selling country album of 2019, two years after it came out. And the new album just around the corner, November’s “What You See Is What You Get,” is going to make him an even bigger star. 

But all that success hasn’t gone to his head. Frequently and poignantly recalling his scrappy Nashville origins Saturday, and sincerely talking about feeling unworthy to be playing Farm Aid with such accomplished artists, Combs was an everyman through and through. His flashiest stage move was a frequent trick at any frat party, when he shotgunned a can of Miller Lite.

But it’s that relatability, and the relatability of his songs, that have made Combs such a force. From the sunny kiss-off “When It Rains It Pours,” to the smitten ballad “Beautiful Crazy,” Combs’ songs hit that difficult to reach sweet spot. There’s a crackle to his voice, and sharp, emotional storytelling in his lyrics, that country traditionalists can admire, and the music is just smooth enough, and certainly catchy enough, to dominate country radio. 

Combs may be justifiably awed to be playing Farm Aid with the likes of Willie Nelson. But at the rate he’s going, it’s easy to imagine some hot shot country newcomer being awed to share a stage with him someday.

Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats perform at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. (Photo: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats 

It wasn’t quite nighttime when Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats took the Farm Aid stage — but they were certainly sweating. 

The soul band is really in its element when it’s playing a packed festival like this one, quickly hooking thousands, clear fans and new listeners alike, with horn-swinging, toe-tapping songs like “S.O.B.” and “You Worry Me.”

Rateliff’s voice — equal parts sand and honey — and soft-shoe showmanship were just gravy.

Country singer Jamey Johnson (with Randy Houser in the background) performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. (Photo: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Jamey Johnson 

As the first surprise guest at Farm Aid 2019, Randy Houser appeared alongside Jamey Johnson. 

The two country troubadours traded fiery vocals and smoking guitar licks for “Lead Me Home” and Houser’s “Evangeline.” There was a bluesy, brassy band behind them, so beyond the star power the songs sounded sublime, with Tanya Tucker, who performed earlier in the day, smartly camping out on the edge of the stage to watch it all.

It was raining harder than at any point during the afternoon for Johnson’s set — and the hill had yet to be so packed. 

Margo Price performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. (Photo: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Margo Price 

Margo Price can probably connect with Farm Aid deeper than any other artist on the bill.

In 1985, the year of the first Farm Aid, Price’s family lost their family farm in Aledo, Ill., hence the name of the country artist’s breakout 2016 album “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.” 

A Farm Aid regular since then, Price said Saturday that Farm Aid is her favorite gig of the year, and that really showed onstage, from a barn-burning cover of Janis Joplin’s “Move Over,” to Price and the band slamming their feet on the gas for a heart-racing, uptempo take on her tune “Nowhere Fast.”

She also previewed a mournful, quietly devastating new song, “Long Live the King,” a tribute to incredible leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lennon who suffered tragic deaths. Expect it on the forthcoming album, which, like the past two, and based on that new song, is bound to receive universal acclaim.  

Lukas Nelson, and his band Promise of the Real are joined onstage by the Night Sweats, far left, Margo Price and Yola, and Nathaniel Rateliff, far right (in white overshirt) at Farm Aid 2019 on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. (Photo: Piet Levy/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real 

Lukas Nelson and Promise of The Real made the first guest performance of the day with his brother Micah’s band Particle Kid. For his own set, several acts paid it forward, with Micah, Margo Price, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, and Yola all coming out for the simmering “Find Yourself,” culminating with Yola and Nelson trading scintillating vocal runs over purring organ courtesy of Wauwatosa native Logan Metz.

Leon, the son of Promise of the Real percussionist Tato Melgar, also shared the stage, as he had earlier in the day with Micah’s band. But this time he was strapped to a real guitar twice as big as he was.

English singer-songwriter Yola performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. It was the second time Farm Aid is taking place in Wisconsin in the 34-year-old nonprofit’s history, and the first Farm Aid performance for Yola, who released her first solo album earlier this year. (Photo: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Yola 

No one at Farm Aid sang more fabulously than Yola.

The folk artist out of the U.K. is getting a lot of buzz, and she showed why Saturday, with a voice like a lost relic from golden soul records of the early ’60s for splendid songs “Faraway Look” and the title track from this year’s breakthrough album “Walk Through Fire.”

But the real showstopper was a glorious cover of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” If you’re of the mindset that you can’t really improve a classic, Yola’s performance would make you reconsider.

Tanya Tucker performs at Farm Aid Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. It was Tucker’s first appearance at Farm Aid since 1985 – the first Farm Aid concert. (Photo: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Tanya Tucker 

The last Farm Aid Tanya Tucker played was the first Farm Aid in 1985, prompting the country singer to ask at Alpine Valley on Saturday what took so long to be invited back. 

She was joking, but, seriously, Farm Aid, it’s a good question — given that her triumphant set Saturday was one of the day’s best.

To be fair, Tucker has been relatively dormant musically; she released her first album of original songs in 17 years, “While I’m Livin’,” last month. Co-produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings, “While I’m Livin’” is excellent old-school country, and singles “Hard Luck” and “The Wheels of Laredo” translated terrifically live, with the 61-year-old, pink-haired Tucker strutting in knee-high cowboy boots and showcasing the gripping, gritty twang in her voice. 

Her 1972 hit “Delta Dawn” triggered the day’s first singalong, but it was her 1991 tune “Bidding America Goodbye,” written as a foreclosure letter to a farmer, that was the most poignant. 

“The falling price of wheat’s not our concern, and the cost of operation may well be rising,” Tucker sang solemnly. “But the fact is you lose more than you earn.” Singing of an auction of the land, Tucker changed the lyrics to “cold gray Wisconsin sky.” 

How shameful that 28 years later, as the dairy farm crisis continues in Wisconsin with little relief in sight, that those lyrics are still so relevant. 

Jamestown Revival 

Country hitmakers Brothers Osborne had to bow out of their first Farm Aid due to “personal reasons,” but Austin, Texas-based folk rockers Jamestown Revival were a fine fill-in, with traces of the Everly Brothers’ heavenly harmonies for “California” and “Killing You, Killing Me.”

Ian Mellencamp and Particle Kid 

John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson helped put together the first Farm Aid in 1985, and have been with it since. Saturday, their nephew and son respectively, Ian Mellencamp and Micah Nelson (stage name Particle Kid), occupied the first slots.

Ian Mellencamp offered words of hope singing about disappearing walls and wanting peace with his solo set. Particle Kid was far less optimistic, bringing out his brother Lukas Nelson’s band Promise of the Real for the stoner-rock jam “Everything Is (Expletive).”

The star of the set, though, was a bewildered little boy standing in the middle of the stage who occasionally busted out rock-star leaps, air guitar and devil horns. 

Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @pietlevy or Facebook at facebook.com/PietLevyMJS.

Piet also talks concerts, local music and more on “TAP’d In” with Jordan Lee. Hear it at 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9), or wherever you get your podcasts.

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