Musicians sound off at the convention
DEFCON 2. The Republican National Convention, only days away, looms invisibly on the horizon, and that tingle of taut anticipation, the same one that precedes hurricanes and thermonuclear war, is now palpable. But even as unknowable thousands of protesters, press agents, and boosters arm themselves for occupation, a resistance force of musicians and bands, some local and some national but all alike in the boldness of their convictions, is racing to our rescue on an interception course. "To arms, to arms," they cry, and in the predawn hours of the delegates' arrival, our lights are turning on one by one. Starting tonight with the Eight Is Enough show at the Turf Club and through the final days of the convention, we set out to learn exactly how—and why—our cities' artists plan to shine through the impending political maelstrom.
"It's about challenging the Republican strategy," says Joe Selinski, member of local band the Dad in Common and co-organizer of the Eight Is Enough show, a fundraiser for Barack Obama. "They try to construct this image that the Twin Cities and Minnesota at large are a swing state. They've been doing it for a decade at least. To me, it's important that people either on a political level or an aesthetic level are doing as much as they can to remind people in the state and on the national level that this in fact isn't a Republican state, that it's a traditionally progressive state, and that it will remain so."
While the lion's share of the critical attention has been devoted to the convention itself, Low frontman Alan Sparhawk sees plenty to decry in the ineptitude and impotence of a generation that, by all rights, should be outraged. "Our generation has dropped the ball many times on opportunities to speak our mind about things of a political nature," he says. "We're too self-aware. We're bogged down in so much irony and information at this point, and it seems like no one is really saying anything of any thrust or power."
"Envisioning another four years of what's been going down for the last eight seems pretty unacceptable and dangerous for the country," agrees Andrew Broder, Fog frontman and Selinski's Eight Is Enough cohort. "It's worth a little bit of time and a little bit of energy and a little bit of money to try to stop the bleeding, and at least put someone in there that seems thoughtful and seems like they have a sense of justice."
"It's easy as pie," adds P.O.S., who is performing at the Eight Is Enough show. "Put in your time. Donate some money."
Whatever the party and whatever the city, a political convention is a divisive, often corrosive force. But within this environment of binaries (the protester and the policeman, the delegate and the dissenter), many of the performers see a need for the openness, transparency, and camaraderie that has been so greatly imperiled in the last eight years.
"Music can unite people," says Michael Franti, musician, longtime political activist, and headliner of Tuesday's Ripple Effect showcase. "And I think that what we need right now, as a nation and as a planet, is the opportunity to have dialogue. The opportunity to have a conversation between grassroots organizations, between corporate leaders, and between everyday people in the street and our politicians."
"I think the greater good that can come out of this, and I hope does, is that people will realize that this is a unifying point," agrees Crescent Moon, whose hip-hop group Kill the Vultures will play the Eight Is Enough show. "I want people to feel like they are invested in something, like this is some sort of a movement. Because everything has to start somewhere."
Though all agree that music is an inherently unifying force, some express skepticism over whether their work has an impact on the political climate at large. "It's up for debate whether the music itself can change things," says Andrew Broder. "Sometimes it can. But the statement made by everybody getting together for a common purpose, and the common thread that connects all of us, is our love of music and our participation in that."
Chris Barker of Anti-Flag shares Broder's hopeful uncertainty over music's role as a social catalyst. "I'm not of the belief that a band or a song changes the world. For me, it's the experience of being there and being part of a community that feels the same way that you do."
"I probably can't change anything," says P.O.S. "But I can at least do my part. I live here. We all live here. The worst thing you could possibly do is nothing."
Though the political battlefield is swollen with troops on both sides, the musical front is strangely lopsided. While acts like Billy Bragg and Rage Against the Machine bolster the slews of left-leaning performances, few Republican supporters are manning our stages to hoist their flag, and fewer still are hosting events that are open to the public.
"I think it's telling that a lot of the RNC stuff is private parties," says Selinski. "You have a political party rolling into town who's unpopular if you read the polls, and they're throwing private parties. To me, it says something about where that party stands relative to the general population."
"It's a party based on exclusion at this point," says Jesse Kwakenat, bassist in STNNNG, who are also playing the Eight Is Enough show. "And people want to be in that group. It's like a clique. And that fits with their ideology—the private party. To keep people out that you don't want there, and only people you want there will be let in, as long as we get enough votes to stay in power."
Chris Pennington, Freedom Parade organizer, voices puzzlement over the disparity. "You'd think the art would just encapsulate all sorts of weirdoes. Where are the big Republican artists?"
The RNC talent pool is murky with rumors. Though Mike Love will denigrate the Beach Boys' name with a performance at the International Market Square and Smash Mouth will do their damnedest to test the tolerability of "All Star" beyond all known limits, Sunday is the standout day, when, at First Avenue, Sammy Hagar (who declined an interview) will regale a private Republican audience with a medley of his finest hits. "I will go ahead and say on record," remarks P.O.S., "that Sammy Hagar most likely has no idea what he's supporting and is really excited to get a fucking check."
"I don't know," says Freddy Votel, Skoal Kodiak drummer. "If they had David Lee Roth, they'd at least have an argument going."
While Republicans gamely muster an interest in a live rendition of "Why Can't This Be Love" (the limp-sailed Van Halen single for which Hagar is infamous) before seeking refuge in the bottoms of so many Cabo Wabo margaritas (the tequila brand for which Hagar is perhaps more infamous), hundreds of thousands of Twin Cities residents will be figuring out how to navigate this flash flood of temporary immigrants.
"My compatriots from my hometown have no idea what's about to hit them," says Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show, who will be hosting three consecutive nights of theater and music during the convention. "They're going to be everywhere. They're at your grocery store, there's going to be people in McCain shirts and 'Republicans Rule' and all this kind of stuff, walking all over your town. Thousands of them. In every restaurant you go to, in your record stores, at your library, near your children."
Michael Franti's advice? "It's a historic election," he says, "and I would say to people: Enjoy it. Enjoy being part of it. Come out and participate, and the music we're playing is for everyone. It's for Republicans, Democrats, Independents, black, white, gay, straight, everybody."
The battle is imminent, and amid the clatter of shields and sabers, the hour has come for the final pep talk, and like so many William Wallaces and Patrick Henrys, this conspiracy of musicians is quick with words to soothe the stray weak nerve, to inspire, and to galvanize all the hopes and frustrations that surround the coming days.
"The fact that a black dude named Barack Obama is neck and neck with good old regular other guy—that's huge," says Crescent Moon.
"I mean, you hate to count your chickens before they hatch," adds Erik Funk, lead singer of Dillinger Four. "But I cannot imagine that John McCain can win the presidency, and I can't imagine what the country will be like if he does. I really think it's a great, historic opportunity to really show the world what we're made of."
Chris Pennington wonders: "What is going to be protest 2.0? Now you have free speech zones, and you have police corralling you and mass arresting you, it's almost like we need to think of a different way to go about free speech. People are scared of free speech, or threatened by it now. And it's bad. It's not what America should be."
"Let's look at the reality of what's happened here, and let's do something, let's act on it," says Michael Franti. "I've been to Iraq. I've played music on the streets of Baghdad. I've seen what's going on there, and I've seen the hopelessness and despair of Iraqi people, I've seen the frustration of U.S. soldiers there. It's time that it ends."
For details on many of the shows mentioned in this article, turn to the Critics' Picks section on p. 75.
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