It’s amazing what you can talk yourself into doing based on an email. It was as if MoveOn knew just what sort of a Springsteen fanatic they were dealing with. A concert benefiting America Coming Together (ACT), a 527 that sends volunteers to swing states to get out the vote? Sure! (Well, they had me from “MoveOn members get first crack at Springsteen tickets.”)
My country needed me. So here I was, arriving a few days early to stay with friends in St. Paul, Minn., then east 20 miles to the Wisconsin border and across the wide state (the signs going Bush/Cheney, Bush/Cheney, Bush/Cheney like a locomotive engine all along 94, till the pipsqueaky Kerry/Edwards signs started popping up on the outskirts of Madison, rising to a chorus as we reached our Madison friends’ home.) Old friends, but all we could talk about was, ‘Can Madison save the whole state? It doesn’t look like it—Bush is up seven points here.’
Tuesday, Oct. 5: Outside the sold-out Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, a small group of protesters with Bush/Cheney T-shirts, “Shut up and sing!” and “Don’t tell US who to vote for!” signs. They might as well have been selling Dead paraphernalia at a Pat Boone concert.
Shortly after seven Springsteen appeared out of the dark alongside Michael Stipe, front man for REM, announcing opening act Bright Eyes and imploring his fans to hold off on the “BRUUUUUCE” chant until his turn. Stipe introduced the register-to-vote theme of the Vote for Change tour. Twenty-four-year-old Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes took advantage of his chance at the big time, playing a solid set of seven numbers in the angry-young-man/folk-rock/protest-song genre as his dark hair fell fetchingly into his eyes. He ended saying, “I’m looking for a landslide, but I’ll settle for a win!”
REM’s Stipe kicked off their hour-plus set with a heartfelt “The One I Love.” “Losing My Religion” followed, along with a few songs off their just-released album “Around the Sun,” including the poignant new hit “Leaving New York.” Stipe, dressed in an elegant white suit, which he’d later remove to reveal a white T-shirt emblazoned with a Kerry logo, danced sinuously around the stage, leading up to the defining moment of the concert, when Neil Young appeared as an unexpected guest to join in on “Country Feedback” with a glorious, soaring guitar solo. It became clear during these moments that this was a concert of a lifetime.
The speechifying was kept to a minimum. Stipe told us that even his 70-year-old military father was supporting Kerry. As an intro to “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” he described the huge thunderstorm that had struck the last time REM played the Twin Cities and they’d performed that song—in 1999, which he said felt like “six centuries ago.” Now, “we’re back in the midst of the most terrific thunderstorm in our lives.” Springsteen joined REM to play harmonica on “Bad Day,” followed by alternating vocals with a delighted Stipe on “Man on the Moon.”
After a break Springsteen returned, leading off his set with a twelve-string acoustic solo of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which metamorphosed seamlessly into an uninterrupted sequence of “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Badlands,” and the now emblematic if still unofficial theme song of the Kerry campaign, “No Surrender.” A soulful “Lonesome Day” and “The River” followed, with the E Street Band in fine form and playing as if the future of our country depended on it.
Suddenly Springsteen asked, “Are there any Canadians in the house for Kerry?” Out popped Neil Young again to join in on “Souls of the Departed.” Like many of the evening’s lyrics, lines stood out afresh in light of the current situation in Iraq and the Bush administration’s disastrous policies (“Tonight as I tuck my own son in bed . . .”).
As the chords faded away, Stipe returned to the stage to join Springsteen and Young on Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” with Young doing an awe-inspiring Jimi Hendrix–style electric solo, Clarence Clemons offering one of his famed saxophone riffs, and Stipe and Springsteen repeating the line “two riders were approaching” again and again, evoking the image of Kerry and Edwards riding to the rescue.
A couple more numbers, then Springsteen brought out Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, introducing him as “our generation’s Hank Williams.” After reporting the score of the Twins-Yankees game, Fogerty launched into “Centerfield,” followed by his new single “It’s Like Deja Vu All Over Again.” Springsteen did backup and traded vocals with him on “Fortunate Son,” teasing Fogerty for singing the verses in the wrong order.
As the concert raged into Springsteen’s generous overtime “encore” list (which in typical Bruce fashion lasted as long as the original set), “Born to Run,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Promised Land,” and “The Rising” gave way to everyone back on stage for a transcendent “Because the Night” and a roaring rendition of Fogerty’s “Proud Mary.” The energy built as the artists played off one another, for the thrill of the music and the thrill of the cause.
During “Mary’s Place,” Springsteen did his signature preacher talk, urging members of the audience, “If you’re swingin’, can’t make up your mind, come forward now and say ‘I need help.’ Say ‘Halliburton’ five times real fast, and let the healing begin. . . . The country we carry in our hearts is waiting.”
Everyone wrapped up with the Elvis Costello cover “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” which I’m not sure is over yet. Stipe, if possible more energetic than Springsteen, was running nonstop along the proscenium and up against the seats raised 10 feet above him at the rear of the stage, gesturing emphatically at the Kerry logo on his T, then throwing his arms out to everyone as he danced to get them to stand up and sing.
The $1.5 million the 19,000 concertgoers contributed will be doing its work in the coming weeks. And in next-door Wisconsin? Swung over magically in the tracking polls to Kerry! Some cavalierly attributed it to Kerry’s performance in the first debate, but I feel sure the aura of our vibes wafting eastward was decisive. On Wednesday I helped staff a Democratic Party office on the St. Croix River in Hudson, Wisconsin, which it turned out had been featured in that week’s Newsweek as emblematic of how the Democrats were determined not to yield the traditionally Republican small towns this election.
People were swarming into the hole-in-the-wall headquarters, buzzing with excitement. Some women who’d driven from Milwaukee to see the concert took a break on their drive home to pick up buttons, thoroughly stoked. Another woman told me that although she was the only one of her six friends who went to the concert for the politics as well as the music, all five of her companions, infrequent voters at best, were now totally up for Kerry. And that’s what it’s all about.