Backstage at a hastily assembled press conference a half-hour before the Bring ‘Em Home Now! anti-war concert began, promoter Chris Wangro apologized for the lack of a sound system. “We’re trying to save the money for the veterans,” Wangro said, referring to Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace, recipients of the show’s proceeds. It was that kind of night: admirably earnest, righteously pragmatic, more than a little self-satisfied.
But, hey—that’s life on the celebrity-benefit circuit. And I’ve seen far worse: If nobody’s onstage commentary moved beyond empty sloganeering (save for Dr. Entisar Mohammad Ariabi, an Iraqi whose eyewitness account of life during wartime shocked the boisterous crowd into silence), most of the performers seemed at least dimly aware of why they were there. The home court advantage fostered an openness you don’t hear on Air America. Steve Earle led a round of F-U-C-K in the U-S-A, then asked who we wanted our kids to learn to curse from, him or Dick Cheney. Margaret Cho mused over the flavors of various Bush ladies’ vaginas, figuring Laura’s as Lysol and Barbara’s Bengay. And Peaches somehow came up with novel Bush/Dick wordplay.
Anger worked best as a musical additive, not a rhetorical device. Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst raged through “When the President Talks to God” as though he’d never played it front of anyone before. An 18-member Fischerspooner reinvented electroclash with an explosive production of “We Need a War” complete with choreographed marching and a guitar solo Casey Spooner played with his teeth. “No we fucking don’t,” the singer said as a giant American flag unfurled behind him. (He didn’t get Wangro’s budget memo.)
Acts with a more thoughtful approach fared less well. Headliner Michael Stipe, nightswimming with an all-star band featuring James Iha and Joseph Arthur, lost track of his message in a blur of space-folk tedium. And Devendra Banhart, attempting to capture a child’s sense of pre-war idealism, just appeared shallow and out of touch. I wish I’d seen him mingling with IVAW rep Geoffrey Millard, who announced onstage that exit isn’t a strategy; it’s an executive order.