by Eric Boehlert

Hunched over a 12-string acoustic guitar, standing in the lone spotlight of an otherwise darkened Wachovia Center in Philadelphia last Friday night, Bruce Springsteen began to help unseat President Bush with a bluesy, instrumental version of the "Star Spangled Banner." "America is not always right -- that's a fairy tale you tell your children," Springsteen later commented from the stage. "But America is always true. And it's in seeking this truth that we find a deeper patriotism. Remember, the country we carry in our hearts is waiting."

It was that sense of determined optimism -- a positive message of empowerment -- that drove the opening night of the unprecedented, all-star Vote for Change tour. On Friday night, Springsteen and his E Street Band were joined by REM, John Fogerty and the young band Bright Eyes for a memorable concert of inspiring American rock classics, bound together by a newfound call to activism.

The Vote for Change tour, featuring six separate traveling bills, will play 37 shows in 30 cities -- all in swing states. Proceeds go to ACT (America Coming Together), a group raising money for Democratic candidates. The tour concludes in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Oct. 11, with 13 of the headliners and will be televised on the Sundance cable channel.

Last Friday night in Philadelphia, talk of politics was relatively subdued. There was no Bush-bashing and Sen. John Kerry's name was mentioned only once from the stage by Springsteen. (REM's Michael Stipe wore a Kerry T-shirt for the encore.) Early on, Stipe told fans from the stage, "This is a very important moment for every one of us and for our country." Several times during the night, Springsteen talked about the need for a new "progressive government," for an administration that was "open, rational and forward-looking."

Introduced by Springsteen as "one of the great American rock bands," REM turned in a spirited, 50-minute, 10-song set. Opening with "The One I Love," REM faced the thankless task of not only acting as Springsteen's de facto opening act (normally, he never employs one) but doing it in the singer's backyard of Philadelphia. For most of the set, the band leaned on recent material, such as 2003's "Final Straw," released the week the United States declared war on Iraq, and "Bad Day," another 2003 release that already sounds like an REM classic. The band also dug out the seldom-performed "World Leader Pretend" and then drilled for gold on the raucous "She Just Wants To Be." Stipe then invited Springsteen onstage to join the band on "Man on the Moon." Stipe and Springsteen traded verses, paying an ode to the demented comedian Andy Kaufman.

Twenty minutes later, Springsteen and the E Street Band took the stage. After Springsteen's solo rendition of "Star Spangled Banner," drummer Max Weinberg rang out the opening shots for "Born in the U.S.A.," which soon collided with "Badlands" ("Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland," Springsteen sang.) Next came the furious "No Surrender," Kerry's unofficial campaign anthem. After mentioning Kerry's triumph in Thursday's debate ("I think we're on a roll"), Springsteen uncorked a full-throttled version of "Johnny 99," complete with fiddle break.

The second half of the show was dominated by collaborations. Fogerty, whose '60s band Creedence Clearwater Revival helped define American rock with its sharp, economical classic songs, joined Springsteen for "Centerfield," his jubilant ode to redemption via the ballpark. The moment was pure joy; nothing to do with politics and everything to do with having fun. But when Fogerty stalked the edge of the stage and unveiled the telltale chords to "Fortunate Son" and growled the opening lines -- "Some folks are born / Made to wave the flag / Oooh, they're red, white and blue" -- the mood in Philly became electric. When he sang the chorus about being a guy sent to war because "I ain't no millionaire's son," the reference was lost on no one.

Fogerty penned "Fortunate Son" 35 years ago, sitting on the edge of a bed with a legal pad in his lap. "It's a confrontation between me and Richard Nixon," he once said. Friday it served as a biting indictment of Bush.

Following what Springsteen called his "public service announcement" about a "deeper patriotism," REM guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills joined the E Street Band for "Born to Run." REM has played and probably sold out every major concert arena in America. But as Mills saddled up to Springsteen in anticipation of the song's famous "1,2,3,4" count-off, and 22,000 Bruce faithful erupted, it's possible the REM bassist had never experienced a phenomenon quite like it before.

For the finale, the entire lineup emptied onto the stage and unleashed diesel-powered, 16-person versions of Nick Lowe's "Peace, Love and Understanding" and Patti Smith's modern-day call to arms, "People Have the Power."

Through Monday, Vote for Change will try to spread that power, one encore at a time.

Publication date: 10/07/04

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