Over 15,000 fans filed into Madison Square Garden on Friday night and heard Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, Ani DiFranco, Ben Harper and rap duo Company Flow perform. That in itself is not unusual. Remarkable though, is that the man they were assembled to support, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader -- who spoke after all the sets and for over an hour -- received not a restless crowd in a post-music audience abandonment but an attentive throng that cheered wildly and gave him several standing ovations.
The rally, billed as "Ralph Rocks the Garden," lived up to its name as the sold-out crowd gathered to promote the Nader campaign. Devotion to the candidate and anger over his exclusion from the ongoing presidential debates fueled the crowd and the musicians, as well as speakers Susan Sarandon, Bill Murray, Michael Moore, Tim Robbins and Phil Donahue, while Nader tapped into the supply of personal fuel that has kept him tenaciously engaged as a consumer advocate for over thirty years.
Michael Moore beseeched the young first-time voters in the crowd to vote with their hearts for a candidate whose chances in this race are admittedly slim (Nader's standing has for several months hovered at four or five percent in national polls). "The election is now about 'Who's the second-worst?'" Moore said in regard to the notion that an Al Gore presidency would be preferable to seeing George W. Bush elected. "If you don't vote your conscience now, when will you start?"
Susan Sarandon asked for the lights to be turned on so that the audience members could see each other en masse. "You are not disenfranchised!" she told the crowd. "You are what's going to bring change!"
Introduced by Sarandon as "a female Ralph Nader" for her anti-corporate career battles, Ani DiFranco performed "Coming Up" ("a little ditty about the drug war"), "Fuel" and "Tis of Thee" (its opening line of "Our Father who art in a big penthouse" brought cheers from the crowd). She also sent "a big peace out" to Nader's running mate, Winona LaDuke, a member of the Mississippi band of the Anishinaabeg Native American tribe and the program director for the Honor the Earth fund, who lives on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota and was not present at the rally.
In a pre-show conference, Ben Harper discussed the political frustrations with which he has struggled: "I am one of those who hasn't voted in the past, and it has been out of protest. I've been forced to vote for the individual I loathe less. Now, I'd rather vote with my heart and go down swinging." Onstage, he gave the crowd "Excuse Me Mister" and a soulful cover of Patty Griffin's "Mary" as well as a solid, bluesy version of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" (although the latter song's presence at this particular event left many in the crowd mystified).
Taking the stage, Patti Smith noted that her late father was also an ardent Nader supporter. Smith, backed by guitarist Oliver Ray, began her set with the inspired song choice of "Over the Rainbow." "What better way to sing in Madison Square Garden than for free, and to free our future?" she asked before continuing into an impassioned "One Voice."
Bill Murray's speech reflected the emotional spirit of the rally. Responding to the idea that a vote for Nader essentially will not count, he said, "You tell the candidate that you're going to vote for to come up to me and tell me, to my face, that my vote is a wasted vote. I don't think anyone who could say that, to my face or to your face, should be in charge." When he concluded with "I'm gonna cry now. I've gotta go," it was clear that the comedian was only partly joking.
"Now this is a garden party!" said Eddie Vedder when Murray called him to the stage. "Best party I've ever been to." With a glance toward his career with Pearl Jam, he continued, "I've had the good fortune to play to places that were full, and even this place. But tonight is absolutely different, and I think it's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen." Vedder offered two covers: "I Am a Patriot" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" ("being played," he noted, "with permission of the author"), which became a loose sing-a-long for the audience.
After Nader's speech, which mapped out plans regarding environmental preservation, universal health care, an end to corporate welfare and other goals he holds dear, the musicians and presenters joined the candidate onstage. DiFranco embraced Nader, while Smith was literally leaping up and down. Together they all dove into Smith's "People Have the Power;" the song was going to be the second in Smith's own set, but when Vedder heard it, he suggested that it be recast as an ensemble finale and ended up backing Smith for it on guitar. Even Nader, whose kindly but somber presence doesn't usually lend itself to this type of festivity, was persuaded to sing along. A chant of "Let Ralph Debate" was tacked onto the song near its end.
Backstage, Smith's thoughts were of the future. "We can come together again," she said. "It's not all over, they didn't do it all in the Sixties, it's not nostalgia. We can reclaim the ability and the right to use our collective voice." Sarandon expressed awe at the night's events. "I'm so proud to be part of this process," she said. "They thought we could get half of a small theater filled, and then we had this."