Vote For Change Tour

Music Reviews Bruce Springsteen
Vote For Change Tour

Of all the musicians participating in the Vote for Change tour, Bruce Springsteen had the most to lose. As outspoken as he’s been over the years, he’s never taken political sides, preferring to speak mostly in broad liberal terms: War is bad, justice is good, and nobody wins unless everybody wins. Those are the kind of slogans that even the Boss’ most conservative fans could get behind without looking too long in the mirror.

So it came as a bit of a surprise when Springsteen spearheaded this Vote for Change thing. Sponsored by MoveOn and benefiting the voter registration efforts of America Coming Together, the tour saw Springsteen choosing a side, along with Pearl Jam, R.E.M., the Dixie Chicks, and a slew of others who agreed to the multi-city, multi-date, barnstorm-the-swing-states outing. But save for a few moments of pointed anti-Bush polemics, Thursday night’s stop of the Springsteen/R.E.M./Bright Eyes contingent was less a lesson in agitprop than a demonstration of just how powerful arena rock can be.

To be sure, the message lent the evening some of its power; the audience cheered on cue when R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe said his dad the vet was voting for John Kerry, and Springsteen’s own well-rehearsed “public service announcement” in support of the Democratic ticket drew nary a boo from the 18,000 or so in attendance at the Xcel Energy Center. But what was most impressive was the way all the musicians let the music speak their minds, whether Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes singing about “reading the body count out of the paper,” R.E.M. delivering a pensive “Final Straw,” or surprise guest Neil Young joining forces with Springsteen and the E Street Band for a blistering version of “All Along the Watchtower.” The politics were nowhere and everywhere; George W. Bush’s name didn’t come up once, but the setlists formed their own righteously indignant platform of artists calling on politicians to answer to a higher calling.

None of which would matter, of course, if the five-hour concert didn’t kick ass, which it did. Bright Eyes made the leap from clubs and theaters to the arena stage with surprising ease, making even complex tunes like “One Foot In Front of the Other” come alive and earning the attention of the half-full house assembled for his set, the first of the night, so much so that he drew cheers when he revised the tunes lyrics to say “if we walk away, they’ll walk away/ if you’re still free start running away/ Because we’re coming for you.” Surely Springsteen saying Oberst was one of his “favorite young singer/songwriters” helped; but Obert made a strong case for himself even without the elder statesman’s endorsement. His croaking delivery is an acquired taste, but the latest Bright Eyes lineup—replete with pedal steel and trumpet—gave him ample and appealing backing.

Springsteen introduced R.E.M. with a self-deprecating comment that the audience was about to witness “pearls before swine,” and the band delivered right out of the gate with a taut version of “The One I Love” and a raging take on “Begin the Begin.” The rest of the band’s hourlong set found them mixing a handful of tunes from Around the Sun (including “Leaving New York” and “I Want to Be Wrong”) with a smattering of post-1990 favorites including “Country Feedback,” for which Young provided the titular sonic enhancement, and “Man on the Moon,” which became a joyous singalong featuring Springsteen.

The Boss himself turned in a condensed version of the show he delivered on his tour for The Rising, and the set was all the more powerful for its relative brevity (two hours vs. his usual three-plus). Beginning with an open-tuning, 12-string version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that was both beautiful and irreverent, he and the E Street Band then charged headlong into “Born in the U.S.A.,” which Springsteen managed to interpret anew, even after 20 years, with just a slight change in inflection on the chorus. It was a slightly truncated version compared to previous concert renditions, as were “Badlands” and “The River” (no extended guitar solos or long instrumental intros), but that only served to turn the warhorses back into the concise statements they were in the first place.

But even Springsteen’s set—as strong as any he delivered on his last tour—went from good to great when Young came onstage. Young added harrowing feedback and a stinging solo to “Souls of the Departed,” and then traded licks with Springsteen on the best version of “All Along the Watchtower” since Hendrix. Even E Street sax man Clarence Clemons—relegated to backing vocals and percussion for most of the night—got in on the action, tossing out Coltrane-esque honks in call-and-response to Young’s fretwork.

Amazingly, Springsteen managed to come back after this mesmerizing collaboration without missing a beat on a full-band version of his own “Johnny 99,” originally a solo acoustic track from 1982’s Nebraska. The song’s blues-based chord progression provided the perfect setup for the appearance of John Fogerty, whom Springsteen called “our generation’s Hank Williams.” A Minnesota Twins playoff victory over the New York Yankees might have been the reason why “Centerfield” came off not just as a nostalgic romp but as a statement of purpose, but more likely it was the fact that Fogerty himself was more animated and impassioned than he was on his last solo tour.

After seeing Michael Stipe take the lead on “Because the Night” in Philadelphia last week, rock critic Dave Marsh said that the Patti Smith devotee was born to sing that song, and Thursday’s performance proved it. He and Springsteen traded vocals on the Patti Smith version of the lyrics, and Stipe clearly relished the moment, bouncing all over the stage and then falling to his knees while he watched Springsteen play the guitar solo.

Following a rousing version of “Mary’s Place,” Springsteen invited R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills onstage for “Born to Run,” which would have provided a fitting end to the evening had Young not still been in the house. With Fogerty on vocals, Stipe on cowbell and sharing a mic with Clemons, Young led the E Street Band through “Rockin’ in the Free World.” He even improvised a few lyrics, singing about a president “sleepin’ on the job” who “never had a plan,” providing the ammunition to drive home the pro-Kerry speeches Stipe and Springsteen had made earlier.

Oberst and his Bright Eyes crew returned to the stage along with Young’s wife Pegi for Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.” In a different setting, the extended version of the song might have rendered partisan politics irrelevant. But with an arena full of Kerry supporters, the performers’ message was clear. And, after a night of rock and roll as powerful as this one, well, it seemed downright righteous.

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