On the climactic show of the 2004 Vote for Change tour — a package tour barnstorming through swing states to help John Kerry defeat George W. Bush in that November’s presidential election — a dozen acts performed, including Pearl Jam, John Fogerty, Babyface, the Dixie Chicks and the Dave Matthews Band. Topping the bill on October 11th, 2004, in Washington D.C., were R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen. And the night’s musical highlight came when Michael Stipe joined Springsteen and the E Street Band for a duet on “Because the Night.”
“Because the Night,” written by Springsteen but discarded during the sessions for Darkness on the Edge of Town, got some lyrical tweaks by Patti Smith and in 1978, became her biggest hit. Stipe has long touted Smith as an inspiration: They dueted together on R.E.M.’s “E-Bow the Letter” and Stipe has even published a book of photographs of Smith on tour, Two Times Intro. With a chance to channel his inner Patti, Stipe didn’t disappoint, working the upper reaches of his vocal register and singing “they can’t hurt you now” with real passion. Stipe, wearing a sharp white suit (with a Kerry T-shirt underneath), also provided some of the freakiest dancing ever seen onstage with the E Street Band, flailing and spinning with abandon. When Springsteen played an epic guitar solo, Stipe just stood agog, eventually falling to his knees, as if he was observing closely so he could report back to Peter Buck about this unfamiliar rock idiom.
R.E.M. returned the onstage hospitality when they invited Springsteen to join them for their performance of “Man on the Moon”: he sang the second verse and added, yes, a guitar solo.
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Although Springsteen’s views on social justice and the working man had long been clear, the “Vote for Change” shows marked his emergence as a more explicitly partisan figure. “Sitting on the sidelines would be a betrayal of the ideas I’d written about for a long time,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone. “I don’t want to watch the country devolve into an oligarchy, watch the division of wealth increase and see another million beneath the poverty line this year. These are all things that have been the subtext of so much of my music, and to see the country move so quickly to the right, so much further to the right than what the president campaigned on — these are the things that removed whatever doubt I may have had about getting involved.”
On November 2nd, 2004, Bush narrowly won a second term; all in all, the concert went better than the election.