Lynyrd Skynyrd's scheduled concert at this week's Republican National Convention – originally planned for Sunday night at Tampa's Liberty Plaza – may have been canceled thanks to Hurricane Isaac. But to the surprise of anyone who assumes rockers wouldn't be caught anywhere near a GOP event, plenty of other musicians will be entertaining the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan crowd in Florida this week. At press time, the lineup includes Kid Rock, Journey, the Zac Brown Band, 3 Doors Down, Dave Navarro, Guns N' Roses/Velvet Revolver drummer Matt Sorum and past American Idol winner Taylor Hicks. The house band for performances at the convention itself will be led by former Saturday Night Live guitarist-bandleader, G.E. Smith.
"The average convention-goer is between 35 and 55," says Robin Bronk, head of the Creative Coalition, an entertainment industry advocacy group that has been hosting nonpartisan charity shows at both RNC and DNC conventions for years. "You want to give them what they want. It's the sweet spot of music that's current yet ties in with great memories. And it has to be a group that's not too overexposed, especially in Washington."
Some of the musicians are clearly motivated by politics. Rock played "Born Free" at a Romney rally early this year (Romney has been using the song as his campaign theme since last year, with Rock's tacit approval), and last Friday, Rock appeared at a Ryan rally in Michigan. Skynyrd singer Johnny Van Zant, whose band also played at the 2004 GOP convention, makes no bones about his political preferences.
"We have to make a change now, for the next four years," Van Zant says. "I'm not a politician, but we speak for the common man, and all I know is that we've lost a lot of jobs in the last four years." Van Zant calls Ryan's Medicare plan "pretty doggone good. We've got to take some drastic steps in this country. We can't keep spending and spending."
Hicks and 3 Doors Down, both Southern-based acts, will be performing on the main stage at the convention, held at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. 3 Doors Down singer Brad Arnold says it's a "privilege" to play at this year's GOP event.
Although some of the convention plans are in flux thanks to Isaac, Skynyrd were still scheduled to play "Sweet Home Alabama" and the title track from their current Last of a Dyin' Breed album during a salute to Ann Romney. But would they ever do "Whiskey Rock a Roller" for this audience?
"We would," Van Zant says with a laugh. "Rich people know how to party, too."
Other bands, though, have been hired to play private parties affiliated with nonpartisan causes. At past conventions, the Creative Coalition has recruited the Black Eyed Peas and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (for DNC events) and the Charlie Daniels Band and the Max Weinberg 7 (for RNC-connected shows). This year, the group recruited Journey to play its Florida fundraiser on Thursday. (The B-52's will be performing the same function at next month's Democratic Convention in Charlotte.) Bronk says the concerts shouldn't be seen as an indication of a band's political predilection. "I've never asked," she says. "I guess it doesn't matter to me."
A Journey spokesperson backs up that claim: "It's not an endorsement of any candidate and/or party – it's just another private show," says the spokesperson. "These dates are simply listed as 'Private Event' on the tour grid." What's indisputable is the high price of the evening: a package of six tickets to both shows (Journey and B-52's) starts at a minimum of $45,000.
In other non-Romney-linked concerts during the convention, the Brown band will play a show for the American Petroleum Institute, the trade group for (in its words) "all aspects of America's oil and natural gas industry," and Gavin DeGraw will headline a benefit for Musicians on Call, a charity that brings musicians to play for hospital patients. Navarro and Sorum will be joined by lesser-known members of Jane's Addiction and the Cult for a show Tuesday to benefit the families of wounded or deceased U.S. soldiers.
Kid Rock will be performing at an invite-only show on Thursday, but it's unclear whether Romney is aware of Rock's less Mormon-friendly material. We asked a Romney spokesperson if the presumptive nominee – who's admitted to big love for the Eagles, the Beach Boys and the Killers, led by fellow Mormon Brandon Flowers – was aware of Kid Rock lyrics, like, "I like pussy, suckin' on titties/ Fucked a lot of different bitches from a bunch of different cities," "Been fuelin' up on cocaine and whiskey," and "I don't want to be your friend/ I want to fuck you like I'm never gonna see you again." Or how about the early Rock song, "Early Mornin' Stoned Pimp"?
"Umm, hmmm . . . right, OK," a Romney spokesperson said after hearing those lyrics. "Let me check on this stuff and I'll get back to you." At press time, Rolling Stone had not yet heard back.
Even if the weather impinges on any other planned music events at the Republican convention, it's telling that acts like Skynyrd, 3 Doors Down and Rock are participating. In 1976, the Democrats sewed up the Southern-rock vote when the Allman Brothers Band played benefits for then-candidate Jimmy Carter. (True, Rock is from Detroit, but as heard in "All Summer Long," his music and image now owe an enormous debt to the likes of Skynyrd and other Seventies Southern rockers.)
Van Zant is unapologetic about the way things have changed. "Some of our fans ask why we feel like this," he says, "but I say, if Ronnie [Van Zant, his late brother and original Skynyrd singer] was alive, he'd be a Republican. If our fans [disagree], that's their problem, but it's also freedom of speech."
One rocker consciously absent from the festivities is noted Obama basher Ted Nugent, whose schedule has prevented him from joining in. But fans might be mollified to know that Nugent's former Damn Yankees bandmate Jack Blades (still of Night Ranger) will play the main stage. "Sister Born-Again Christian," anyone?
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