In this very special episode of More In The Monitor, we take a road trip to Amy's native land, Philadelphia, for the Vote For Change Tour...
Will tonight be remembered as the night that Conor Oberst made the leap from well-kept secret to big-time rock star, or the night that he jumped the shark? Because once you’ve stood on stage with Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty and Michael Stipe, shaking the maracas to “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” in front of thousands of middle-aged NPR listeners, you really can’t go home again. I’d love to report that Conor held his own among those legends, but that wasn’t the case. If he wants to play with the big boys, he needs to learn that acting angry and misunderstood can only go so far. Appealing to women’s mothering instincts doesn’t work on actual mothers (i.e. the thousands of middle-aged women in the crowd). Also, he totally froze when Stipe handed the mic off to him for a verse. It was quite sad. Fogerty had to jump in and cover for him, while he hugged Stipe for dear life. Then Springsteen patted him on the back, as if to say, “Hey, kid, I know what it’s like to be playing to small crowds full of men who want to be you and women who want to do you, only to be suddenly thrust in front of the whole world. Think this is bad? Wait until they slap your mug on the cover of Newsweek.” Of course, it was only the first night of the tour. Conor’s nerves will probably quiet down as time goes on. Tonight he was hopping all over the place, running back and forth across the stage, shouting the lyrics. Hugging everybody—Stipe, Springsteen (who gave him a big, sloppy man-kiss), Clarence Clemens. I kind of felt embarrassed for him. But he was probably as ecstatic as he was nervous; I mean, if it wasn’t for Nebraska, lo-fi indie rock would probably never have existed.
Conor fared a lot better during Bright Eyes’ opening set. The usual suspects were back, rather than the strange, ad-hoc lineup that played at Northsix last week. Once again, the new stuff sounded great, especially “Road To Joy”—that song was made to be played in arenas. Since I’m so used to people screaming “CONOR I WANT TO HAVE YOUR BABY!” or “WHERE’S WINONA?” during Bright Eyes shows, and this one was quite silent, as most people were still finding their seats as they played, I decided to burst out a few “CONOR I LOVE YOU—WOOOOOO!!!”s for tradition’s sake. The only person who shared my enthusiasm was probably the adorable teenage girl with braces and an I HEART EMO t-shirt sitting a few rows behind me with her dad.
R.E.M. were underwhelming. I’ve never been that huge a fan, but I saw them play last fall at Madison Square Garden and was impressed. The songs from their forthcoming album were weak, and though Stipe’s triple-jointed shimmying in a bright white suit was transfixing, the rest of the band sounded…eh. I mean, of course “Losing My Religion” was amazing, but the rarities they busted out, like “World Leader Pretend” and “Walk Unafraid” just didn’t take off. Peter Buck seems to have gotten a metrosexual makeover, so now he looks like Lee Ranaldo at a gay bar. The core three were augmented by a guy who looked like he’d just been kicked out of Interpol on keyboards, and Sammy Hagar on bass. (Oh, this just in—my friend Mike, friendly neighborhood R.E.M. expert, explains that they were Ken Stringfellow and Scott McCaughey. My bad.)
But then...“Man on the Moon” featuring Bruce Springsteen on guitar and vocals. Holy crap. I never realized that I had been waiting my whole life to hear Springsteen sing that “Andy are you goofin’ on Elvis—hey baby” part, but indeed I had. Oooh, shivers. Then it occurred to me that R.E.M. probably spent much of the ‘80s trudging around the country in a crappy touring van, complaining about that annoying Bruce Springsteen guy who came on the radio every five minutes.
Then the E Streeters took the stage. In complete darkness save for a single spotlight, Springsteen proceeded to RIP THE SHIT out of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on an acoustic twelve-string guitar. I’m talking Hendrixian awesomeness here. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the band launched into “Born in the U.S.A.” I hope Reagan was listening from beyond the grave, because there was no mistaking the message this time: War is bad. It fucks people up. Then they played “Badlands”, “No Surrender” (John Kerry’s campaign song, I think), “Lonesome Day” (I’m always surprised at how well The Rising’s songs hold up in concert), “Lost in the Flood,” “Johnny 99” (Why, Bruce, why would you ever turn one of the most devastating songs of all time into a good-time folksy hoedown??? WHY??) and “Youngstown.” (I think he played that last one specifically for Youngstown, Ohio native Daphne Carr—read her account of the concert here.)
Now it was Fogerty time. I was totally cool with that. I love Creedence; I think they don’t get enough respect. So I was psyched—would he start with “Fortunate Son,” probably the most poignant song for this election? Or maybe “Bad Moon Rising”—that’s how we’re all feeling right about now? Perhaps he’d just launch into “Down on the Corner” or “Proud Mary” to get everybody revved up.
But no. Oh no. John Fogerty had other ideas.
HE PLAYED FUCKING “CENTERFIELD”. As if Fogerty’s choice of the cheesiest novelty song of his career wasn’t bad enough, he played the whole thing USING A GUITAR SHAPED LIKE A BASEBALL BAT. I wanted to go puke, but I knew the line for the bathroom would be too long. How the hell did Fogerty get Bruce Springsteen to go along with this? Was that the one condition of his being on the tour—that he gets to play “Centerfield” every night? God I hope not. Fogerty also looks incredibly young, at least in his ‘40s. Botox, anyone? He also hopped up and down more than Conor Oberst. This is the same man that wrote “Fortunate Son”? Good lord. It reminded me of that Atom & His Package song, “Sting Cannot Possibly Be The Same Guy That Was In The Police”. Next he played some acoustic song I didn’t recognize, then finally “Fortunate Son.” Which, I might add, not many people in the place knew the words to. Oh how I fear for this country. Also, I’ve seen both Sleater-Kinney and Les Savy Fav play better versions of that song.
Now before I get into the rest of the set, let me just make one thing clear. You may think that I’m some hipster who does nothing but listen to hot new bands all the time. And that is partially correct, since it is my job to be constantly writing about new music. But I also woke up one morning last fall overcome by the feeling that all I wanted to listen to was Bruce Springsteen for the rest of my life. That phase lasted a couple of months, during which I bought all his albums (except Human Touch…ugh), both box sets, a DVD, a book, a poster and tickets to two of his concerts at Shea Stadium (I had already seen him play in Philly that summer.) All of my friends made fun of me, but I didn’t care. I was in love.
During that obsessive period, there were two songs I was dying to hear Springsteen play live: “Atlantic City” and “The Promised Land”. Yeah, both might appeal to the American Studies major in me, I know. But he didn’t play either at any of the three shows I saw last year, so when that mighty “Promised Land” harmonica melody came blasting out of Bruce’s mouth, I went apeshit. Like, jumping up and down, screaming, arms-waving-around-so-hard-I-hit-the-lady-behind-me apeshit. But then, goddamn Fogerty sang the second verse. Ugggh. What a downer. So unnecessary. My spirits were somewhat lifted when Michael Stipe came out to sing “Because the Night” and he totally nailed it. Too bad Patti Smith couldn’t be there because she was off stumping for Nader or something. Then they played “Mary’s Place” with the standard mid-song speech, this time about converting Republicans. “Born to Run” featured Peter Buck and Mike Mills, then everybody came out for “Proud Mary”, which paled in comparison to the time I heard Tina Turner sing it at Radio City Music Hall years ago. The aforementioned “Peace Love and Understanding” encore followed, then a version of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power”. That was surprising—I think maybe 10% of the audience knew the song. Still, they caught on to the chorus by the end, and hearing thousands of middle-aged white Philadelphians shout “PEOPLE HAVE THE POWER!!” was quite endearing. It almost—almost—made me think that we have a chance of winning this fucking election.