The B-Street Band, a popular Bruce Springsteen cover group that's performed nearly 200 gigs a year since 1980, convened in the dressing room Sunday night before a typical late-afternoon gig at Bensalem, PA's Parx Casino.
Will Forte, the group's 63-year-old keyboardist, manager, agent and publicist, among other roles, was telling the band about the "thousands of emails from both sides" he had received after news broke that the group would be playing the Garden State Presidential Inaugural Gala on January 19th as part of Donald Trump's inauguration. "We're standing out in the storm right here," he told the band. "We gotta get out of the storm."
In the past few days, they had started to feel isolated because, as Forte says, "the story was so distorted." "There were misleading headlines like, 'Trump Hires B-Street Band,'" he says. "We felt like we were out on our own on an island."
If the B-Street Band pledge allegiance to anyone, it's Springsteen, who has repeatedly voiced his anger and disgust at the president-elect. (Forte half-jokingly said of the B-Street Band last week, "I don't even know if they have any politics.") Out of respect for their musical inspiration, they've decided to pull out of this week's event.
"We owe everything to [Bruce] and our gratitude and respect to the band is imperative above all else."
"We had to make it known that we didn't want to seem disrespectful, in any way, shape or form, to Bruce and his music and his band," Forte says. "I don't want to upset them. We owe everything to him and our gratitude and respect to the band is imperative above all else. It became clear to us that this wasn't working and we just had to do what we thought was the right thing to do and that was to pull out."
The group had played the gala twice before to little controversy for President Obama and signed a contract for this year's gig in 2013, long before the presidential nominees were decided. But this year was different.
"As time went by, the complexity of the situation became real immense and intense," Forte tells Rolling Stone. "The band was caught in a hurricane. We didn't see this coming, of course."
Springsteen never weighed in on the controversy, but Garry Tallent, the E Street Band's founding bassist, tweeted, in response to news of the B-Street band's appearance, "Please tell me this is more fake news. Or at least a joke." Steven Van Zandt, the group's outspoken guitarist, tweeted of the B-Street Band, "Nice guys. Met them. I wouldn't say right or wrong. Up to them. But it's naive to think one can separate Art and Politics. Art IS Politics."
Forte agrees. "All this stuff made it clear to us that this event is not worth it," he says. "It's just a job to us. We're just trying to hold up a contract. We're not trying to prove anything. We're just a fun band!
"When I started this band 37 years ago, it was only about performing and making people happy," he adds. "I never thought the distortion of what we do as a band would've been so intense. I wish it never would've happened. We would've never got involved in this if I knew how this would turn out. I would trade in all the support and publicity just to go back to where we were four months ago. I don't think they'll ever be a cover band of our size in the history of music that will get the attention of something this big."
Speaking to Rolling Stone last week, Forte made it clear that both music and contractual obligations took precedence over politics. To paraphrase Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield, Forte, who's spent four decades performing Springsteen's music as a full-time job, was becoming a lost character in Nebraska, Springsteen's stark 1982 album about "a portrait of a wounded America that fuels its machinery by consuming its people's dreams."
"I've been in enough litigation in my life," Forte said last week. "I have four kids. I'm 63 years old. I can't make stands like other people can. I'm not in that position."
"I'm worn out. The band's worn out. Everybody loves to have their 15 minutes of fame, but maybe not this way."
But now that position has changed. "So far, it's okay," he says, when asked about any possible financial backlash from the band's musical about-face. "But that's all I can say. Whatever the consequences are for breaking a contract, I'm willing to take because this is much more important."
Forte sighs loudly and sounds, unwittingly, more like someone in Nebraska than any Springsteen song he's performed. "My wife's a schoolteacher; makes $52,000 a year," he says. "Been working at the same school 20 years. Twenty years. So where am I going with this? There's nowhere for me to go."
Organizers of the event tell Rolling Stone that they are lining up alternate talent. "We are very disappointed, but we understand the decision based on all the questions and attention this has brought to the B-Street Band," Nancy Fatemi, executive director of event organizer New Jersey State Society, tells Rolling Stone in a statement. "Our mission has always been to bring people together in a congenial, nonpartisan way. In New Jersey, we are always stronger than the storm."
The band's refusal to perform reflects more a pro-Springsteen sentiment than anything about Donald Trump. ("C'mon, we're a bar band," Forte said last week. "It's got nothing to do with politics whatsoever.") But in 2017, every performance even tangentially connected to Trump is a political act, whether the artist likes it or not. Forte says he'd rather discuss the numerous couples that have met, and later married, at his shows or inspirational fans that have succumbed to cancer and asked to be buried in a B-Street Band T-shirt.
"I'm worn out," he says. "The band's worn out. Everybody loves to have their 15 minutes of fame, but maybe not this way."