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Top Pop Acts Strum Up Votes for Kerry

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Times Staff Writer

Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band opened their concert here Friday night with a taut, instrumental rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” then segued into “Born in the U.S.A.,” his dispirited anthem about the fractured American Dream in the years after Vietnam.

It was a defining juxtaposition in the most celebrated show in a series of concerts-as-political-rallies staged in venues across Pennsylvania on Friday as representatives of the pop music world -- including R.E.M. and the Dixie Chicks -- sang and stumped for Sen. John F. Kerry’s Democratic presidential campaign.

“I watched the debate [Thursday] night. I think we’re looking good. I think we’re on a roll now,” Springsteen told the 19,000 fans at the Wachovia Center arena here soon after playing “No Surrender,” which Kerry has embraced as his official campaign song.

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During the evening, fans could watch political messages shown on overhead screens between sets.

Springsteen was joined on stage by fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member John Fogerty, who underscored the night’s political theme by singing his new “Deja Vu (All Over Again),” which is an update of the Vietnam-era commentaries from his days with Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Earlier, fans cheered a high-energy set by R.E.M., led by frontman Michael Stipe, who danced across the stage in a frosty white suit. The veteran band’s set was divided between recent material that related specifically to current events -- such as the antiwar song “Final Straw” and the frenetic “Bad Day -- as well as older hits which often seemed to fit the night’s theme, including “World Leader Pretend.”

The show here was the centerpiece in the formal kickoff of an unprecedented political venture by the pop community. Stars will barnstorm through 11 election battleground states to raise money and attention for their cause, the defeat of President Bush on Nov. 2.

Over 15 days, there will be more than three dozen shows with multi-artist bills including such high-profile acts as Pearl Jam, the Dave Matthews Band, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and John Mellencamp. The tour, which started with performances by Browne, Raitt and Keb’ Mo’ on Monday in Seattle and Wednesday in Phoenix, will culminate in the nation’s capital Oct. 11 with the lone show that boasts all the top acts in the coalition.

Friday’s formal kickoff featured shows in venues that ranged from Wachovia Center to the intimate confines of the 2,200-capacity Warner Theatre in Erie.

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The tour came together in recent months as the artists merged their activist intents. Springsteen had been mulling over a series of acoustic shows until he and his manager, Jon Landau, began comparing notes with the camps of R.E.M., Pearl Jam, the Dixie Chicks and the Dave Matthews Band.

Event organizers said Friday that they were uncertain how much the concerts would generate, but expected it to be more than $10 million. Funds will go to America Coming Together, a key group in efforts to register and turn out Democratic-leaning voters.

“I don’t know that we can change anyone’s vote by singing or talking about the way we feel about things,” Natalie Maines of the country trio the Dixie Chicks said this week. “But I do believe and hope that the attention can be a positive thing.”

As the scope of the show became more ambitious, the artists recognized that the stakes got higher. Before the concert Friday, Stipe said the artists understood the need for measured words. Anti-Bush sloganeering may play well in the concert house, but echo badly in the media.

“Springsteen set the tone at the first artists’ meeting, when we all came together to plan this,” Stipe said, by pointing out “that if we do this we become allied with the candidate we hope will win” and need to adopt “the doctor’s creed: ‘First, do no harm.’ ”

A signature musician of his era, Springsteen’s work and career have always been laced with social commentary, but he has taken great pains to preserve his name for causes, not candidates. On Friday, he made it clear that in his mind the times necessitated a partisan stance.

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Stipe described the entire endeavor as “something that’s mushroomed into a colossal moving circus and one that we’re all very proud of.”

But the spirit, to him, remains one of citizen expression. “People put up a sign in their frontyard and this year I am, too. My front yard this year is the stage.”

Yet concert activism is not quite as simple as a placard posted by the driveway. Unlike Hollywood stars who can reside within created characters, music stars walk on stage with their own words and voices. They also rely more intensely on a sense of personal relationship with fans.

The introduction of partisan politics into that relationship can be a dicey career move. Simply put, fans are less likely to sing along if they don’t like the words. The risk is less in rock music quarters, as evidenced by the success of punk-inflected rockers Green Day reaching the top of the album sales chart this week with “American Idiot,” a scathing attack on America circa 2004.

But acts that appeal to older audiences or to the Heartland risk alienating their fan base. The Dixie Chicks suffered most dramatically last year when anti-Bush comments led to their near-banishment from country radio.

There was no booing at the Wachovia Center on Friday -- just the opposite.

Backstage there was a sense that history was part of the set list. “I have to say that I do think it’s true that bad times make for interesting art,” Stipe said. “And these are bad times.”

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