Key members of the US rock aristocracy roll across 11 swing states to try to persuade floating voters to ditch Dubya

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Beat Around The Bush

THE VOTE FOR CHANGE TOUR

Bruce Springsteen/R.E.M.

WACHOVIA CENTRE, PHILADELPHIA

Friday, October 1, 2004

James Taylor/The Dixie Chicks

THE STATE THEATRE, CLEVELAND

Saturday, October 2, 2004

As anybody who can remember Red Wedge will confirm, being battered around the head with a wad of rolled-up political slogans at a rock concert is enough to get you running for the exits long before half-time, whichever side of the political divide you’ re on. All the artists involved in the multiple interlocking tours gathered under the Vote For Change banner were acutely conscious of this danger. As John Fogerty put it before going on stage at the opening night in Philadelphia on October 1, “Speaking for myself, I will vote for John Kerry. There’s no other option for me. But I’m not going to tell people what they should do once they get to the ballot box.”

Perhaps he hadn’t had time for a chat with Conor Oberst, gangly lead singer with opening act Bright Eyes. The band is basically Oberst plus some sidemen, and to prove the point, he opened their set with a lengthy solo performance on acoustic guitar. Bright Eyes play a kind of cranked-up folk music with lyrics about political repression and the evils of consumerism. The band seemed nerdish and anonymous, and could have been criminally dull were it not for Oberst’s obsessive stalking around the stage and a voice which trembled with nervous intensity. The mere thought of Dubya makes him seethe, and he expressed his fervent wish that Vote For Change would mean “we don’t have this madman running our country any more” (in Cleveland the following night, he went so far as to observe that “a vote for Bush is like shitting in your own bed”).

The evening’s elder statesmen adopted a more measured approach. Bruce Springsteen, dropping comfortably into the role of a benign master of ceremonies, went light on the speechifying, restricting himself to a brief mission statement about wanting “a government that’s open, rational, forward-looking and humane,” then later adding a plea for “a deeper patriotism” in an America that lived up to its promises. He was well aware that a sizeable chunk of his audience vote Republican, and quite a few of them had stumped up for tickets even though they knew that proceeds would be donated to America Coming Together, a voter mobilisation group aiming to rustle hordes of dithering Democrats to the polls on November 2.

Introduced by Bruce as “one of the greatest American bands of the last 20 years”, R.E.M. strode purposefully on stage and launched into “The One I Love”. It was the curtain-raiser to a set which ranged across back-catalogue highlights including “Losing My Religion”, “Begin The Begin” and “Walk Unafraid”, alongside a salvo of tracks from the new album Around The Sun. The most pointed was “Final Straw”, pitting the frustrated rage of Michael Stipe’s lyric against an urgent protest-singer strum. Yet, as if to defuse any accusations of suffocating high seriousness, Stipe’s performance scaled new heights in flamboyance as he whirled around the stage in a pristine white suit, unfurling glittering dance routines and extravagant semaphore gestures. When Springsteen joined them for “Man On The Moon”, Stipe’s exaggerated Presley-isms on the “Andy, are you goofin’ on Elvis?” line had the Boss choking at the microphone.

The conversations between Springsteen and his manager Jon Landau before they took the decision to sign up for Vote For Change must have been fascinating, but despite the stalwart liberal credentials of fellow subscribers like R.E.M., Pearl Jam and Jackson Browne, there isn’t anybody who could have played the Big Daddy role as convincingly as Springsteen. Having spent 30 years carefully not aligning himself with a specific political candidate, Springsteen has accumulated a kind of moral prestige possibly matched only by the likes of Johnny Cash or Henry Fonda. That he should have opted to expend some of his hard-won capital at this particular juncture gave the loudest possible warning that this year’s election wasn’t merely a matter of squabbling over the small print but a moment of real crisis in the body politic.

For a man whose sartorial ventures rarely run far beyond jeans and a T-shirt, Springsteen has an advanced flair for the dramatic. His new arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” was as striking in its way as Hendrix’s version from Woodstock. He played it solo on an acoustic 12-string guitar, letting the theme emerge gradually from a maelstrom of thrumming and droning chords, as if he were digging it out from under a pile of rubble. Then the E Street Band lashed into the opening of “Born in The USA”, launching Springsteen into a customised set that stressed the “ties-that-bind” dimension of his catalogue rather than homing in on his bleak and solitary vein. They thundered through throttle-open versions of “Badlands”, “No Surrender” and “The Rising”, while Nils Lofgren took an extended guitar interlude in a turbo’d-up “Youngstown”.

But it was the collaborative nature of these shows which has doubtless made them a bootlegger’s delight. Springsteen made room for a mini set by John Fogerty, who rattled through “Centerfield”, his anti-militarist new single “D