In a black shirt glued to his back with sweat, prowling the stage with the steam-engine roll of the E Street Band behind him, Bruce Springsteen raised his voice in the last hour of the grand finale of the Vote for Change Tour like a tent-show preacher hitting the peak of his sermon.
"I hear all this fuss about the swing voter," he told the 20,000-strong sold-out congregation at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C., during the breakdown in "Mary's Place," firing the last two words like a pair of torpedoes. "All I wanna say is, it's October 11th. What the hell are you waiting for? You mislead the nation, you lose your job. It ain't rocket science."
Then Springsteen turned to the TV cameras in front of him and spoke to the nation watching the show live on the Sundance Channel. "Go to your windows," he yelled, "throw 'em open and tell all your neighbors – a change is comin'!"
It was rock & roll party politics at its most thrilling and contagious: a climactic explosion of faith in the future and the simple, revolutionary mechanics of voting, in a long night of inspirational fireworks celebrating strength in numbers and the motivating power of song. Vote for Change, which opened on September 27th, had already rolled through eleven battleground states in fifteen days. Sixteen top acts on six separate bills grossed $15 million for the voter-mobilization group America Coming Together and recruited 300,000 new members for tour presenters MoveOn PAC. In Washington, virtually the entire Vote for Change brigade – Springsteen, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Dixie Chicks, James Taylor, John Mellencamp, Jurassic 5, Keb' Mo' and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds – convened for a five-and-a-half-hour gala that ended with everyone lined up across the stage, singing Patti Smith's ode to participatory democracy, "People Have the Power."
The location was perfect: just a few blocks east of the White House. As a result, John Fogerty – who was drafted during the Vietnam War and put in three years with the Army Reserve before starting his hit-single run with Creedence Clearwater Revival – got to sing his CCR broadside "Fortunate Son," backed by the E Street Band, almost on President Bush's doorstep. "When I sang the verse "Some folks inherit star-spangled eyes/They send you down to war,' I definitely had Mr. Bush in mind," Fogerty recalled the next day. Pearl Jam got even more specific, pulling out their silver-spoon indictment "Bushleaguer" for the first time on their Vote for Change run.
"We didn't know what we were going to play until the last minute," singer Eddie Vedder said later of his band's set, which included Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," done as a scalding waltz, and a forced-march cover of X's "The New World," in which Vedder and his duet guest, actor Tim Robbins, threw extra fire on the lines "It was better before/Before they voted for what's-his-name," "Vote for Change was a great excuse to have people get together, based on music," Vedder said. "But everyone was ready for something to be said, too. And every night it came out in a different way."
At the Washington show, the rhetoric was kept to a minimum. Springsteen expressed his support for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in a pep talk near the end of his set. Natalie Maines of Dixie Chicks couldn't resist a crack about the roasting she got last year after publicly criticizing the president on the eve of the Iraq war: "Ever since then, people ask, 'Do you want to take back what you said and apologize?' But you know what? If I did that, Bush would call me a flip-flopper. So I'm sticking with it."
Otherwise, the music did the talking, and there was a spike in cheers and outrage from the crowd whenever a pointed lyric hit home. "You don't have to speak much," Browne explained backstage. "The songs do the work for you." In their set together, Keb' Mo', Browne and Raitt underscored the ecumenical spirit of "I Am a Patriot" by playing the song, written by E Street guitarist Steven Van Zandt, on red, white and blue electric guitars. And Raitt pumped up the optimism in the third verse of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," changing the original arithmetic – "What a field day for the heat/A thousand people in the street" – to "a million people."
R.E.M. had good reason to come out fighting. One of the signs held up by a small knot of pro-Bush protesters outside the arena read, MICHAEL STIPE SING TO SADDAM. In response, the R.E.M. singer, wearing a white suit and a John Kerry T-shirt, tore into the chorus of "The One I Love" – "Fire!" – with doubled fury. Then Vedder came out to help Stipe deliver the urgency in "Begin the Begin," a song Vedder learned just a couple of hours earlier in the backstage corridor with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Mike Mills. "I saw the protesters with that sign," Mills remarked with disgust before going onstage. "We're citizens of the United States. We're participating in democracy. I wish everyone would do this."
Dave Matthews packed his fifty minutes with allusions to crisis ("Don't Drink the Water"), gluttony ("Too Much") and blind obedience ("Ants Marching"), singing with extra bite and long, high yells over the funky charge of his band. "I don't drag specifics into my songs," he admitted later. "But I am at a loss when I'm loudly misunderstood," he noted with a chuckle. In Dayton, Ohio, the second stop on his Vote for Change Tour. Matthews was booed by, in his words, "a fair representation of our Republican audience" after he told them, "You all know why I'm here, and who I'm going to vote for."
"I just laughed," Matthews recalled. "It was funny that they spent their hard-earned cash for the chance to boo. Even though the money was going to a hopeful change."
On a night overflowing with superstar clout, Springsteen was clearly a leader among equals. "Why doesn't someone get you a golf cart?" Van Zandt joked as Springsteen zoomed around backstage before and during the show, conferring with the other acts and tying up loose ends. Springsteen and his manager Jon Landau were prime movers in the creation and launch of Vote for Change, and Springsteen was in the thick of the action until his own showtime. He coached the full cast in an afternoon rehearsal of "People Have the Power," at one point huddling with the members of Jurassic 5 to go over their parts. When the scheduled opening speaker, Robert Redford, didn't appear, Springsteen – with twenty minutes to go before the start of the concert and live broadcast – called a meeting in his dressing room, where he, Vedder, Stipe and Matthews wrote their own introductory remarks.
Springsteen was a fan all night, as well as the headliner. He nodded and smiled next to the stage as the first act, John Mellencamp, put a Cajun-garage twist on "Authority Song." Springsteen reprised a feature of his Vote for Change shows with R.E.M., appearing in their set to sing and play guitar on "Man on the Moon." When Springsteen got to the line "Are you goofin' on Elvis?" it was hard to tell who had more fun: Springsteen as he watched Stipe do his rubber-Presley dance, or Stipe when he heard Springsteen deliver the line like he was Elvis. When Buck and Mills joined Springsteen's set for "Born to Run," Stipe was on the floor near the stage, punching the air like a New Jersey native.
Springsteen opened his hour as he had his other Vote for Change shows: with an instrumental exploration of "The Star-Spangled Banner," replacing the electric napalm of Jimi Hendrix's version with the pealing-church-bell effect of a twelve-string acoustic guitar. In "Born in the U.S.A.," he subtly altered his embattled vocal, pitching the melody upward in pride and promise. And in "Badlands," after his strafing Telecaster break and Clarence Clemons' burst of reveille sax, Springsteen rewrote the final chorus, putting the song's original broken hearts aside. "To take a stand," he sang bluntly, "is the price you gotta pay/We'll keep pushin' till it's understood/And these badlands start treating us good."
Springsteen didn't need to explain much more about his reasons for being on this stage, for this cause, except in benediction. "We have some work to do between now and Election Day," he said before sending everyone home with a triple shot of hope and duty: "Born to Run," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" and "People Have the Power." "The country we carry in our hearts is waiting."
This story is from the November 11, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.