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Hail to The Boss: Springsteen Plays Politics

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2004; Page C01

How's this for a sign of the times? None other than Bruce Springsteen, the gruff-voiced bard of the working class, stormed a sold-out MCI Center last night in the hopes of sending one man straight to the unemployment line.

Yep, and the Boss wasn't alone in voicing his displeasure with our country's other notable boss, either: Thirteen of the New Jersey star's fellow pop-music heavy hitters showed up in the nation's capital to try to help rock George W. Bush right on out of the White House.


Born to run wild: R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe and Bruce Springsteen share the spotlight during the concert. (Tracy A. Woodward - The Washington Post)

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At the start of the raucous finale of the Vote for Change tour, Springsteen, Dave Matthews, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Dixie Chick Emily Robison walked onstage together to the sound of loud boos -- oh, wait, sorry, the crowd actually was screaming "Bruuuce!" (Talk about a guy who was born to run for office.)

"We're here to raise our voices loud and clear," said Springsteen. "We want to change our government."

"We want government that's open, rational, responsible for the citizenry, and humane," added Vedder.

There was no mention of Bush in the opening statements. No mention of John Kerry, either. Instead, the musicians went on to unload (and unload and unload) their arsenal of hits and keep their political views to gritty little sound bites and pleas to vote.

Perhaps the most rousing set of the night was the first one: John Mellencamp gave his roots-rock a bluesy, acoustic grit. "This next song is about what the Devil can do if you don't keep your eye on him," said the midwestern icon before launching into the fiddle-fueled "Walk Tall." Backed by a four-piece band, Mellencamp stayed seated on a stool for "Paper in Fire" and "The Authority Song" but jumped to his feet to put extra oomph into the blue-collar anthem "Pink Houses."

The tour, a much-publicized 38-show road trip that since Oct. 1 has covered 33 cities in 11 swing states, including Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio, was presented by MoveOn, a liberal political action committee. All proceeds ("millions and millions" is all organizers will say) will go to America Coming Together, an independent group created by Democratic Party supporters. Tickets for last night's show, which sold out in 30 minutes, ran as high as $175. Most of the previous Vote for Change shows -- aimed at undecided voters but drooled over by music geeks -- also were reported as sellouts. People who were shut out could watch the show live on the Sundance Channel or hear the broadcast on more than 60 radio stations.

Last night's five-hour-plus exhaust-athon was more a call to guitars than a call to arms -- and it proved sensational for donkeys and elephants alike. In fact, things were a lot more divisive across the street from the arena.

The D.C. chapter of the pro-Bush organization Free Republic, led by Kristinn Taylor, waved signs that read "Saddam-Aid 2004," "Tunes for Terrorists" and "Shut Up and Sing."

"I've been a Springsteen fan since '78," said Taylor, 42, of Washington, "but I'm boycotting the Boss until after the election. . . . The problem I have with these artists is that they have been on the wrong side of freedom."

Next to the Free Republicans was David Lytel, 46, also of Washington. A staunch Democrat, he's the founder of the Committee to ReDefeat the President. But it wasn't just his protesting neighbors who were mad at him. "When I invited the ReDefeat the President team today, I misspelled Springsteen," Lytel said with a grimace. "There was outrage."

Considering the number of acts that had to be shoehorned in -- and all-star evenings can be clunky affairs -- last night's show zipped along. R&B smoothie Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds strummed out the sweet melody to his big hit "Change the World," then gave way to SoCal folk-rocker Jackson Browne, slide-guitar queen Bonnie Raitt and neo-bluesman Keb' Mo', all of whom teamed for a sexy, sinister cover of Buffalo Springfield's Vietnam War-era rallying cry "For What It's Worth." Adding hip-hop swagger to the night, rap outfit Jurassic Five rattled the rafters with the bass-tastic "Freedom."

Dressed in a blinding white suit and jittering around as if he had fire ants in his pants, smooth-pated oddball Stipe led R.E.M. through an all-together-now version of "The One I Love," his pleading howls of "Fire!" echoed by the equally writhing masses. Pearl Jam's Vedder then hopped onstage to help out on "Begin the Begin," the two singers bouncing and throwing playful punches. The biggest singalong of the night -- and proof that perhaps no one has merged art and pop better than R.E.M. -- was "Losing My Religion," which also garnered the biggest ovation.


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