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.
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.
No, scratch that. Before Stipe could even get out the words "Please welcome to the stage . . . Bruce Springsteen," the fans erupted (and erupted and erupted) and flashbulbs popped. The night's main man helped out on R.E.M.'s "Man on the Moon," punctuating the chorus of "Are we losing touch?" with one of those silly little leg kicks that Springsteen -- a great talent, a horrendous dancer -- busts out when he's feeling giddy.
The superstars -- and, uh, actor Tim Robbins -- just kept on coming. Robbins, who makes Springsteen look like Tommy Tune, joined Vedder and his grunge progenitors Pearl Jam for some really bad dancing but rather rousing punk-rock, including the howler "Grievance."
"We got the message out, and almost everyone here is going to vote," said Vedder, who quizzed the crowd about when Election Day is -- and everyone held up the peace sign. It was a nice moment that turned appropriately chilly when Vedder spat out the words to Bob Dylan's caustic antiwar critique "Masters of War."
James Taylor took the stage next. "I hate it when they say, 'You shouldn't changes horses midstream.' I hate it 'cause if your horse can't swim . . ." he said. He opened with the bittersweet ballad "Never Die Young" and invited the Dixie Chicks to assist him with sob-inducing takes on his "Sweet Baby James" and "Shower the People," Taylor and Natalie Maines delicately trading off on vocals.
Speaking of that troublemaking Chick, Maines -- who became a public relations nightmare last year when she said she was ashamed of fellow Texan George W. Bush -- received a prolonged standing ovation.
"Gosh, I hope y'all show up to our next tour," she said during her band's short but playful set. "After the incident, people asked me if I wanted to take back what I said. Well, no, 'cause after that Bush would just call me a flip-flopper."
After a hoedown take on Dylan's "Mississippi" -- a typical Bob puzzler that doesn't seem to be about politics at all -- the Chicks gave way to the Dave Matthews Band. The trippy jazz-pop jammers wailed away on "Don't Drink the Water," an incendiary number that built to a messy but creepy finish, and the hippie stomps "Ants Marching" and "What Would You Say?"
"Bruuuce!" they cried.
And after four hours of going bonkers, Bruuuce they finally received. After opening with a gooseflesh-rippling steel-string rendition of the national anthem, Springsteen led his venerable E Street Band straight into the bittersweet belly of a raging "Born in the U.S.A.," a hard indictment of the powers-that-be that is often misinterpreted as a pure patriotic stomp.
The Boss then did what the Boss does best: sing for the working stiff in all of us. He played "Badlands" and "No Surrender," each anthem a chance for crowd members to throw jubilant fists in the air -- no matter where they sat on the political spectrum.
Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty came on to sing with Springsteen on a blistering "Fortunate Son." (Who didn't see that coming?) Stipe serenaded the Boss on "Because the Night," the song miraculously tight for being essentially unrehearsed. Springsteen, in hellzapoppin' preacher mode, urged everyone watching at home to take off their clothes and celebrate. "A change is coming!" he cried. And then, of course, he did "Born to Run" -- with the house lights on, no less.
With the concert past the midnight mark, all the Vote for Change acts headed back to the stage for a sloppy but energetic cover of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" It's a bipartisan song and a really nice thought.