Swinging State

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

Ben Jelen/In the Name of Change

Wash. U. campus/Pageant.

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."

Artists whose music is typically apolitical in nature have received some negative feedback from fans, other musicians and various media outlets as well. "Our band's political past is pretty...sleepy," says Death Cab's Walla. "This is really the very first thing that we've ever done. This is our first political statement, I guess you could say. Certainly [Death Cab singer/songwriter] Ben [Gibbard]'s songs are not political in any way, and we have always been sort of a 'You go about your business and we'll go about ours' sort of band.

"There are plenty of people who have voiced their distaste with our involvement in this tour," Walla continues. "Because our songs are so apolitical, there have been a people who have said, 'Well, I'm voting for Bush, and this really colors my opinion of your music.' And that's sad, but that's fine. It's all right. We must agree to disagree. I think it's both a right and a duty to speak up when you feel you've been moved. And I think that's the thing that makes this whole process work. So I'm not really into the 'Keep your mouth shut, you're just a dumb entertainer' argument."

While Walla says most of the negative comments have been relegated to message-board chatter, some of the older-skewing, more mainstream artists may have more at stake. Then again, they may also have the power to wield more influence.

Four months after the Dixie Chicks' London incident, during which time they received death threats, were booed at the Academy of Country Music Awards and indirectly got two Colorado radio DJs canned for playing their songs, the band spearheaded the "Chicks Rock, Chicks Vote" campaign for Rock the Vote, an organization that encourages young-voter registration and launched its own five-month, fifty-city tour in June along with partner MTV. The Rock the Vote bus makes a stop at Washington University on Saturday, the day after the presidential debate, and performances will include Ben Jelen.

Though he might be an exception among his swinging-youth peers, Walla knows exactly what he wants out of the upcoming election. "All I know is we're playing Las Vegas on Election Day, and that's also my birthday, so that's going to be a very, very triumphant or very sad, surreal day," he says. "I'm hoping for triumphant. All I want is a new president for my birthday."

Scroll to read more Music News & Interviews articles (1)


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.