Swinging State

Kerry may have given up on Missouri, but musicians haven't

Tom Sawyer didn't want to whitewash it, and now we don't really want to be on either side of it. We're talking The Fence here, and though the Show-Me State is often overlooked by the rest of the country, every four years Missouri's balancing act becomes a focal point of national attention.

Even though we voted Bush in 2000 and birthed John Ashcroft, Rush Limbaugh and the gay-marriage-banning amendment to the state constitution, Missouri is officially a swing state (even if Kerry seems to have given up the ghost). But it's not only the campaign strategists who stumped for the second presidential debate to be held at Washington University this Friday who have their eyes on our chads. Vote for Change, a group of artists including Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, R.E.M., Dave Matthews Band, John Mellencamp, My Morning Jacket, Ben Harper and Bright Eyes, is trying to get musically minded Missourians to swing in one particular direction this year by putting on a pair of top-talent shows in St. Louis.

Over the course of nine days, the Vote for Change coalition is presenting the largest concert series ever launched in support of a presidential candidate. Six tours are playing a total of 33 shows in 28 cities in the swing states of Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Iowa, Florida, Wisconsin and, yes, Missouri, before culminating in an October 11 "special finale concert" in Washington, D.C., tickets to which sold out 30 minutes after they went on sale September 21. The shows are expected to raise between $10 and $40 million for independent-voter organization America Coming Together and the political action committee (PAC) faction of MoveOn, a high-profile activist group that encourages Americans to find their political voice. Local artists have stepped into the breach as well: This Saturday, Brian Henneman, Magnolia Summer, the Love Experts, Nadine frontman Adam Reichmann and others will perform a Bush-bashing concert at the Pageant. All proceeds will go to MoveOn.

"The whole goal of MoveOn PAC is to get people to vote for Kerry, and these concerts I think are broader than that," says PAC executive director Eli Pariser. "They're about a change in the White House on down. We feel that these artists can talk about this disastrous war, the outsourced jobs, the reasons that people need to vote for change and reach people who we couldn't through advertising or traditional means.

"The voters in these states are largely going to determine the outcome of this election," Pariser continues, "and we felt it was essential that we reach out to them in any way possible. I think what the artists are really doing is a Paul Revere ride. It's sounding the alarm that this election is not one that you can sit out, and people need to take a long hard look at the Bush administration's record of failure."

"We've all been concerned about the direction the country is heading in, in varying degrees and sort of for varying reasons, but we felt like there was not really a ton we could do," says Death Cab for Cutie guitarist/producer Chris Walla, whose band performed at the Fox Theatre with old friends Pearl Jam on Tuesday. "Our manager is actually very political, and he started asking us, 'Well, if there was something we could do, would we do it?' And we said, 'Well, of course.' And then Pearl Jam asked if we'd be interested in doing these shows and we said, 'Well, of course,' and that's what we're doing."

While Pearl Jam and Death Cab for Cutie took to the stage on one side of the state, Vote for Change's Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Keb' Mo' performed Tuesday night at Midland Theatre in Kansas City.


Although speaking their minds on a daily basis comes naturally to some of the Vote for Change artists, joining such a strictly political tour -- or even making a statement at all -- can come with a price. Just ask Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines, who caused a March 2003 media furor on par with the Michael Moore juggernaut when she told a London audience that her band, performing Wednesday with James Taylor at the Fox Theatre, was "ashamed" that President Bush was from their home state of Texas.

And tour figurehead Springsteen, for example, has long remained relatively quiet on political matters. Now the man whose 2002 album The Rising was steeped in grief for 9/11, yet never explored anger or revenge, has caused a great deal of dissent among his more flag-waving devotees.

"I felt like I couldn't have written the music I've written, and been on stage singing about the things that I've sung about for the last twenty-five years and not take part in this particular election," says a message from Springsteen on his Web site. "You and Kerry can take a bow, Traitor," responds a message-board poster.

"I think that's just ridiculous," MoveOn's Pariser says in response to the criticisms Vote for Change participants receive. "First and foremost, these are citizens of the country who have a right to say what they want to say. But I think also these are people who have formed a close connection with millions of Americans through their songs, and when these songs are political and they talk about political issues, to pull that out would be to deny them a key part of their art."

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