By Mark Guarino
DETROIT — What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? On Sunday, the rock musicians holding court here and elsewhere in Michigan wanted to know, in their determination to inspire voters to support John Kerry.
The Vote for Change concert tour is an ambitious multi-city, multi-headliner tour held in 11 swing states. On Sunday alone, six separate concerts were held around Michigan featuring Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, Death Cab for Cutie, the Dave Matthews Band and others. Money raised benefits America Coming Together, a voter mobilization organization, and is promoted by MoveOn, a liberal political action committee.
The concerts started Sept. 27 and will culminate in an Oct. 11 finale in Wash. DC. that will be televised live on the Sundance Channel. There is no comparable effort endorsing George W. Bush.
At Cobo Arena, where Springsteen, R.E.M., John Fogerty and Bright Eyes performed a four-and-a-half-hour show, much of the onstage talk concentrated on getting out the vote. Performers chose songs that reflected their distaste for the policies of the Bush administration. Springsteen talked of fighting for “a government that is open, rational, just and progressive.”
“It is in seeking these truths where you find a deeper patriotism,” he said.
It is the first time in his career that Springsteen openly endorsed a political candidate. He made his feelings known right from the start. He opened his set playing a spine-tingling solo version of the national anthem on a 12-string guitar that later bled into a full band blowout of “Born in the U.S.A.” Later, he brought onstage an actor pretending to be a Republican and “cured” him of his conservatism by forcing him to chant “Halliburton” three times.
Mixed in with Michigan locals were fans as far away as Ontario, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago. For many, the concert was a galvanizing way to experience political action collectively.
“Doing this through music is extremely powerful,” said Kristin Blom of Glen Ellyn. “I feel so empowered. Four more years of Bush could be frightening.”
“The politics made it that more inviting. They didn’t force the issue,” said Mike Guadagno of Plainfield. “I’ll express my view but I would never say you should do what I say. That’s the democratic process. That’s what we’re all about.”
Robert Smith of Kalamazoo, Mich., said he hopes the tour does have an impact and doesn’t understand the criticism leveled at Springsteen at others for endorsing a candidate. “(The musicians) have a voice just like I do,” he said. “I’m all for it.”
Hank Frazzini, of Valparaiso, Ind., agrees, even though he is an undecided voter who is leaning towards Bush. “It’s just their opinion. It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I came out mostly for the music.”
Although a majority of the Cobo Arena crowd was roughly between the ages of 25 and 55, the tour is reaching out to younger voters through new generation bands like Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, My Morning Jacket and Jurassic 5.
From the stage, Conor Oberst, 24, of Bright Eyes said he is worried about a draft and the revocation of Roe V. Wade if Bush is re-elected.
Jessie Brogler, 19, said she came primarily to see Bright Eyes and plans to vote for Kerry. “A lot of people I know don’t know anything about politics,” she admitted. Her friend, Brittany Fleming, 15, was more optimistic, saying that her “friends who really do care inspire people to care.”
“These people need to get energized by the election. This is the most critical time of our country (for them),” said a Lombard man who asked not to be identified.
The multi-artist bills made room for collaborations, some anticipated, others not at all. In Toledo Saturday, Neil Young and Peter Frampton walked out unannounced to play during Pearl Jam’s encore.
At Cobo Arena, Springsteen sat in with R.E.M., singing with lead singer Michael Stipe and shredding through guitar solos during “Bad Day” and “Man On the Moon.”
Stipe returned the favor during Springsteen’s set, singing lead vocals on “Because the Night.” John Fogerty borrowed the E Street Band to perform a few Creedence Clearwater Revival classics, including a seething version of “Fortunate Son.”
The finale involved all the musicians trading vocals and solos on Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” and Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.” The Dixie Chicks, just off the stage from their show across town, joined in at the last second.
Outside the arena, stood a lone protester. “I used to be a (Springsteen) fan. I don’t think I can now that they’re using this to directly support a democratic candidate,” said Steve Gendregshe of Ann Arbor. He held a sign that read “Born in the U.S.A.” above a photo of an aborted fetus. Some passersby asked him how he felt about the deaths of Iraqi children. “I don’t like to see children of Iraq die either — no one likes to see that,” he said.
Even though the interstate leading to the arena was dotted with ominously-worded billboards for Bush-Cheney (“remember, it’s your money”), Suzanne Rowe of Detroit said she believes her state is not the dead heat as it is portrayed. “I see things changing every day. The media is playing it safe. I’m not a big fan of polls,” she said.
She is, however, prepared for the outcome she considers the worst. “If Bush wins,” she said. “I will cry.”