Since its inception in 2017, VetsAid has raised over $2 million for veterans in need. The brainchild of guitarist Joe Walsh, an annual benefit concert has sat at the core of the 501(c)3 non-profit organization’s fundraising efforts.
While forced online for the past two years amidst pandemic, the live concert returned this year, taking place in Columbus, Ohio, where Walsh grew up, during Veterans Day weekend, with a goal of showcasing Ohio-born artists with personal connections to the military community.
For Walsh, the endeavor is a personal one, the guitarist having lost his father, a pilot, during a plane crash in Okinawa in 1949. Walsh was just a toddler when his father passed and his commitment to the community remains strong.
“I have always been resonant with veterans’ causes and their families. I’m a Gold Star kid myself,” explained Walsh in Columbus prior to this year’s concert during a press conference at Nationwide Arena. “When I found myself in a position where I could, in some way, give back to our nation’s veterans – who have given so much and asked for so little – how could I not?” he continued. “So we started VetsAid, bringing together the two things that have saved my life over and over again: the friends I’ve made and the music we’ve played together.”
The recipients of VetsAid grants this year are all either based in Ohio or pledged to dedicate funds exclusively to veterans in Ohio. This year’s concert bill doubled down on the concept, showcasing performances by Dave Grohl, Nine Inch Nails, The Black Keys, The Breeders and Walsh’s newly reunited James Gang.
“Our hope with these musical festivals is to share that community, fellowship and joy with a new city each year, and a new population of veterans, and to raise some money while we’re at it,” said Walsh. “What a blessing it has been for me and my family to pull this off in the city that nurtured me, my young mind, introduced me to rock and roll on the radio and provided some stability for an American family like mine in that small house on Summit Street all those years ago. It means a lot to me to be doing this here in Columbus.”
VetsAid 2022 kicked off more than five hours of live music with an opening performance by the Ohio State University marching band, who offered up their take on “Hang on Sloopy” before moving into the national anthem.
“Tonight’s performances will be loud… very loud,” said an introductory video. “Remember, with rock, all things are possible.”
90s alt stalwarts The Breeders kicked up the volume significantly, ripping into “No Aloha” to open a set which focused primarily on their 1993 breakthrough Last Splash.
“Hi, everybody! We’re also Ohio players,” joked Dayton, Ohio native Kim Deal, guiding her band into “Saints.”
Drummer Jim Macpherson seemed to battle some early technical issues but the group persevered, delivering a rollicking take on “Divine Hammer.”
“This next one is a song about Ohio,” explained Deal. “Have you ever driven East 35? Then you’ll know what I’m talking about,” she said, the pulsing early bass of Josephine Wiggs soon driving “Walking With a Killer.”
What would a benefit concert be without uniquely paired special guests? The Breeders featured the first, Deal shifting to bass as their set drew to a close.
“We’ve got a friend from Warren, Ohio that’s gonna help us out,” said Deal, reprising her Pixies lead vocal on “Gigantic” with a little help from Dave Grohl, who conjured up waves of feedback before chipping in on backing vocals.
“They make the word ‘star’ for someone like Dave Grohl. His warmth and his talent makes you want to be near him,” said Walsh’s stepson Christian Quilici, a VetsAid co-founder thrust into an emcee role when Price is Right host, Cleveland’s own Drew Carey was sidelined with COVID. “VetsAid is my dad’s love letter to his dad. I’d like VetsAid to be mine to my dad.”
One of the evening’s most heavily anticipated performances came by way of Walsh, drummer Jimmy Fox and bassist Dale Peters, performing as the newly reunited James Gang in what’s being billed as their final ever performance.
“We’re the James Gang from Cleveland, Ohio!” declared Walsh, as the trio, backed by an additional keyboard player, dove into “Stop.”
Highlighting a number of tracks during their set for the first time in over 20 years, Walsh remained in terrific voice, lights dimming as he put his bluesy spin on Albert King’s “You’re Gonna Need Me,” transforming, if for a moment, an arena into a smoky blues club. The group didn’t even bother using the massive video screen flanking the stage, putting forth a refreshing no frills rock and roll clinic.
“How ya doin’?” asked Walsh, setting up “Tend My Garden,” ultimately bringing on a trio of backing vocalists for the song.
Following a long solo, Walsh kicked off “Walk Away,” the backing singers sparkling on the track. “Wow. Some of these songs are pretty old,” he joked. “A lot of you weren’t born then! If you’re young and don’t know who we are, your parents really like us!” he said with a laugh.
Few rock acts in recent memory have put together a ten year stretch quite like The Black Keys have since the release of their sixth studio album Brothers, with Akron natives Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney rolling out a cavalcade of hits on stage in Columbus as evidence.
“This is a song we cut back in the day in a basement in Ohio,” said Auerbach, stepping back to the duo’s four piece backing band, manipulating the whammy bar while tearing through a solo during “Your Touch.”
“You help us out with this one if you can, alright?” said the guitarist, scorching slide defining “Gold on the Ceiling.”
A 45 minute hit parade is far from the typical Nine Inch Nails set but that’s the rare treat the Columbus crowd got during VetsAid, Trent Reznor and company tearing through one of the most raucously energized, frenetic NIN sets in recent memory, stealing the show in the process.
“We’re really happy to be here, man,” said Reznor, pausing just for a moment as he explained his group’s invite. “Joe reached out to me a few months ago… You don’t understand what a big deal that is,” he explained. “First ever concert I saw was him. I’m gonna shut the f–k up and try to squeeze in as much music as I can,” said Reznor prior to “Perfect Drug.”
NIN made good on that promise, proving there’s beauty to be found in the brutality of the group’s alternative industrial stylings and that pain can be turned into an uplifting experience under the right circumstances, such is the power of live music.
“Wish” set the pace and “March of the Pigs” soon gave way to “Piggy,” strobe lights reflecting oversized shadows on the screen set up behind the band, a high energy set closing in magnificent fashion with “The Hand That Feeds,” “Head Like a Hole” and “Hurt.”
“Well… It’s the first Nine Inch Nails concert that I’ve ever been to!” declared Walsh, returning to the stage for a concert closing solo set. “I don’t know what to say. I loved it! It kind of reminded me of being in the Northridge earthquake.”
Grohl sat in on drums with the James Gang, embellishing “Funk #49,” and returned to help Walsh close up VetsAid in style. “A man couldn’t ask for a better friend,” said Walsh, introducing the Foo Fighter.
Kicking off his solo set, Walsh fronted a new four piece group, launching into “In The City” before tearing into “Turn To Stone.”
“Now if I knew I was gonna have to play this next song for the rest of my life, I would’ve written something else! But it’s too late, we’re stuck with this!” declared the always quotable Walsh, Grohl adding guitar to “Life’s Been Good” before moving back to drums for an all-star take on “Rocky Mountain Way” which featured a heaping helping of Walsh talk box, plus the Breeders and Walsh’s 6 year old godson Roy Orbison III.
The concert was the culmination of a weekend which saw a Columbus street named in Walsh’s honor, with the Eagles guitarist revisiting his childhood home. Just two hours north on I-71, Walsh memorabilia could be viewed alongside that of The Black Keys in an exhibit dubbed “Cleveland Rocks!” in the midwest wing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, a video featuring Walsh and brother-in-law Ringo Starr playing on a loop nearby (a Kim Deal bass guitar was also on display in addition to Reznor artifacts from Woodstock ‘94).
“Thank you to the vets for their service. Thanks for comin,’” said Walsh as VetsAid drew to a close. “Ohio, baby!”