Songs of Protest

Newsweek, 2004-10-02, by: Randy Abramson
Following the popular musical traditions of the 1960s, Bruce Springsteen and his allies kicked off the Vote For Change Tour in Philadelphia on Friday night. But was the political sentiment lost in the music?
Three quarters of the way through his exhausting set, Bruce Springsteen hushed the E Street Band in order to address the packed Wachovia Center crowd. Sounding like a preacher, he asked, ?Am I gonna take you down to that river of change??

That plea for change, of course, was a shout-out for undecideds and George W. Bush supporters to vote for John Kerry in the upcoming presidential election. The Boss kept his evangelical shtick going, inviting anyone with a bowtie in the audience to join him on stage. A planted nerd appeared on stage, bowtie and all. Kneeling before the crowd, Springsteen asked the audience to shout ?Halliburton? three times. After the chant, the man leapt to his feet and shouted, ?I'm switching!?

If only swaying voters in real life was that easy.

The Vote for Change Tour, which began last night in Philadelphia (with a lineup including Springsteen, Bright Eyes, John Fogerty and R.E.M.) and several other concerts scheduled in Pennsylvania, is part of a 10-day concert series through swing states. All net proceeds go to America Coming Together (ACT), a pro-Democrat group which will use the money to mobilize voter registration for John Kerry. The musicians on the tour are sure to lose some fans due to their clear partisanship. And before last night, the question loomed as to whether the bands could put on entertaining shows as well as energize the public to get out and vote.

Between the subtle artist interviews that played on video monitors between band sets, Springsteen's playful sermons and Bright Eyes' front man Conor Oberst's blunt plea for high voter turnout so that "We don't have to have this madman run our country anymore," the issue of purpose was clear without being overpowering.

Surprisingly, there were no overt demonstrations before the show, nor were there visible anti-Bush signs inside the stadium, but the evening still packed a political punch. Without being preachy, the artists were able to make their points through their carefully chosen material. Beginning with indie heroes, Bright Eyes, the night took on a frenetic charge. Playing to a half-full arena, Oberst and his band, whose style is a mish-mash of Dylanesque phrasing and a vocal style that can err into Johnny Rotten-like tantrums, was able to win over the 30-and-over crowd that showed up early enough to check them out. R.E.M followed, bursting onto the stage with their classic, "The One I Love." Front man Michael Stipe, who was dressed for drama in an all white suit and matching boots, worked the crowd masterfully with signature frenzied dancing and stop-action poses. "We're R.E.M., and we approve of this concert," Stipe said to the adoring crowd. Their set list's titles alone were enough to convey their agenda. "World Leader Pretend," "Final Straw," and "Losing My Religion" all struck a powerful chord under the ACT umbrella.

The band was joined by Springsteen for their final number, "Man On the Moon." The playful song brought a much-needed levity to the show, and although it was a stylistic mismatch for Springsteen, the crowd was floored. The song marked what would be the start of several all-star collaborations that would take place that night, all of which seemed to outdo its predecessor.

The E Street Band emerged after a short break with Springsteen playing a ragged version of "The Star Spangled Banner" on acoustic 12-string, followed by high-energy renditions of "Born in the U.S.A.," "Badlands," and "No Surrender." The band was joined by Fogerty for "Centerfield" and the Credence Clearwater Revival anti-war anthem classic, "Fortunate Son."

The rotating lineups continued throughout the night: Michael Stipe took lead vocals on "Because the Night;" Peter Buck and Michael Mills of R.E.M. backed Bruce on "Born To Run;" Springsteen sang a verse on CCR's "Proud Mary" and everyone came out for a blistering cover of Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding." The show closed with the collective group?s take on Patti Smith's "People Have the Power." Oberst, who is only 24 years old, handled his verse with confidence, with Stipe at his side and Springsteen looking on. In that moment the baton of the protest singer was passed from one generation to the next. The ideals of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan were preserved, and if that too was a goal of this tour, then the bands can be assured that their mission was accomplished.



2004-10-01 Wachovia Center, Philadelphia, PA