Media

Music with a Message

Bruce Springsteen, Michael Stipe and friends take to the road to show swing-state voters a good time on the Vote for Change tour.
They came from far and wide to support a man whom they believe could right the course of the nation and lead them to the Promised Land.

And Bruce Springsteen's fans think John Kerry might be alright too.

Before a sold-out crowd of more than 18,000 at Philadelphia's Wachovia Center, Springsteen, R.E.M., John Fogerty and relative newcomer Bright Eyes wowed the predominantly Democratic audience with a four-and-a-half-hour show that emphasized performing over proselytizing.

The concert was one of 37 Vote for Change shows that will raise money for America Coming Together, a non-profit group supporting John Kerry that is seeking to increase voter turnout in swing states.

The bands pleased fans by performing sets that intermingled their politically-themed songs with fan favorites. Springsteen and R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe kept the political statements to a minimum while passionately performing their hits and sharing the stage for several songs.

And that was just fine with the fans, most of whom came to the show for the entertainment, not the politics. Bryan Litman, a 27-year-old from New York City, was one of many out-of-state Springsteen fans who came primarily to see The Boss. Litman, who supports Kerry, said he is comfortable with the Vote for Change format of mixing politics with music. "People who come here should know what they are going to get (on stage) because they have been so up front about the concert," Litman says. He prefers this direct approach to the purportedly unbiased "propaganda you get on Fox News."

R.E.M. played hits including "The One I Love," "Joyful Noise" and "Losing My Religion" during which the lanky Stipe, dressed head to toe in white, flailed about the stage looking like the Trix rabbit on a sugar high. Stipe's few political remarks included "We are R.E.M., and we approve of this concert," and "Did anybody watch the debate last night?" which elicited a rousing response from the audience.

Stipe referred to the President when introducing 1988's "World Leader Pretend," and called the Iraq War "kind of fucked up" when he introduced "Final Straw," a song he wrote shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

In between sets, conversations in the audience were more about music and the mundane than the upcoming election. One audience member was surprised at the lack of political activists and voter registration efforts outside the arena (there were a few tables inside). Springsteen fan Lisa Durocher of Manchester, N.H. told Paula Kougeas of Alexandria, VA. that she decided to support Kerry over Howard Dean in her state's primary solely because she heard that Bruce's drummer, Max Weinberg, was supporting Kerry. The two women, both Democrats, also discussed the debates and how they were both impressed by Kerry's performance.

Scattered amongst the crowd were a minority of folks wearing pro-Kerry or anti-Bush clothes. Eric, who works in real estate in New Jersey, proudly wore a baseball shirt representing the Halliburton Overchargers. He said he had never made a political donation before, but he and his girlfriend from New York were heading to Allentown, PA. after the concert to help out with a voter registration drive. The smattering of Bush supporters in the crowd kept a low profile, with the exception of a trio of beer-enhanced men shouting for "four more years" as they left the premises.

While the still-streaming-in audience responded well to R.E.M., it was clearly partisan – most of the crowd seemed to be there for Springsteen. Outside the arena, it looked like any other Bruce concert – lots of Springsteen T-shirts, tailgating, and CD players blaring "Born to Run" or other Boss standards. When Springsteen appeared on stage to sing alongside Stipe during R.E.M.'s "Man On The Moon," a Vesuvian eruption of fan adulation overwhelmed the sounds from onstage.

Springsteen's set started with a blistering 12-string rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner," followed immediately by "Born in the U.S.A.," "Badlands" and "No Surrender," and the gritty "Johnny 99." Former Creedence Clearwater Revival front man John Fogerty joined Springsteen and the E Street Band for four songs, including his "Déjà Vu All Over Again" which compares the Iraq conflict with Vietnam, and "Fortunate Son" a '70s Creedence hit critical of Vietnam.

During an extended version of "Mary's Place," Springsteen used his oft-relied-upon device of saving someone through rock-and-roll, only this time, the saved soul was convinced to vote for Kerry. A bowtie-wearing accomplice was "taken to the river of change and carried to the other side," according to healer Bruce.

Later in the performance, Springsteen made his "public service announcement for the evening." The purpose of the evening, he said, was to support the change to a rational government that supports civil rights, fairness and the environment. "America is not always right, but we always seek the truth."

Notably absent from Springsteen's set was the pacifist song "War" as well as Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," both of which he has performed in concert on a number of occasions.

The evening concluded with two songs featuring all of the performers onstage. The groups jammed to Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," and Patti Smith's "Power to the People."

The people left, power in hand.
John Gartner is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.
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