From Bruce Springsteen leading 50,000-strong crowds in chants of “Yes we can!” to the Beastie Boys headlining a last-minute voter-awareness arena tour to Jay-Z putting a political twist on his full-band stage show, musicians are coming out in force for Barack Obama as the November 4th election approaches. It’s a burst of enthusiasm that recalls 2004’s Vote for Change Tour: Some events, including a Dead/Allman Brothers show on October 13th in State College, Pennsylvania, and a Springsteen/Billy Joel/ John Legend concert in New York on October 16th, are official Obama fundraisers, held under the campaign’s Change Rocks banner; others, like the Beasties’ tour with the nonpartisan Rock the Vote organization, are focused on encouraging fans to show up at the polls.
“Ultimately, the mission statement is to get people out and voting,” says Beastie Mike D, whose group is bringing along guests including Jack Johnson, Sheryl Crow, Ben Harper, David Crosby and Graham Nash. “But in my opinion, the America I love is in such a terrible state, and for the change that I would like to see happen, it’s really crucial that people get out and vote for Obama.”
Most musicians performing for Obama – ranging from the Dead to Devo – are focused on swing states including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, where electoral votes are crucial to an Obama victory. “We want to be of as much use to the candidate as we can be,” says Dead drummer Mickey Hart. “At this stage of the game, it’s about consciousness and about getting out there and voting, and doing something on your own that makes a difference. The stakes are so high.”
Some events – such as Springsteen’s in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, and Jay-Z’s in Michigan and Florida – are carefully targeted to areas in which newly registered voters are likely to vote Democratic. “If you’re doing it in the right part of the state, most of the people who register are gonna vote the way you want,” says Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. “Pennsylvania is a place where you could say Obama wasn’t connecting with blue-collar workers. There’s no one who connects more with those people than Bruce Springsteen.”
In Detroit, Jay-Z fans picked up tickets at Obama’s campaign office, where staffers encouraged them to register. “It was a way to pull in voters who maybe hadn’t been part of the system before and get them registered,” says Brent Colburn, Michigan spokesman for Obama’s campaign. “You were able to see the breadth of Obama’s appeal: Jay-Z’s concert skewed younger, and the Springsteen show was on a college campus, so there were a lot of students but also a lot of working-class people.” Both Springsteen and Jay-Z performed in the final three days before the Michigan registration deadline, with the Obama campaign coming away with 9,000 new registered voters in the Detroit area alone.
In Miami, Jay-Z looked out at a crowd of thousands and said, “I’m not telling you who to vote for. I’m telling you who I’m voting for: Barack Obama!” At another point, the MC alluded to Sarah Palin before launching into “99 Problems,” with its chorus of “I’ve got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one.”
Springsteen, who performed on 2004’s Vote for Change and made appearances with John Kerry, told crowds that he expects his efforts behind Obama to be more effective. “In 2004, I had the tequila all lined up on the bar,” he joked during a Michigan performance of “No Surrender,” which Kerry used as a theme song.
And Springsteen also made an impassioned case for Obama. “I’ve spent 35 years writing about America, its people and the meaning of the American promise,” he said at each of his campaign stops. “I want my America back, I want my country back. So now is the time to stand with Barack Obama and Joe Biden, roll up our sleeves and come on up for the rising.”
This story is from the March 20th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.