The 2016 presidential race is heating up, and New Yorkers are beginning to “feel the Bern.” The pun-worthiest of Democratic candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders, is in the city this week, and his goal is to fire up his supporters (and hopefully gain some new ones) as the nation approaches its first primaries in February. Though New York’s closed primary won’t take place until April, the impact of Sanders’s anti-capitalist stump speeches hit home as he spoke out against Wall Street from just a few subway stops away, in midtown Manhattan. Meanwhile, his campaign made moves in Brooklyn with its first official benefit concert, at Baby’s All Right, which continues this evening.
Thus far, the bulk of Sanders’s campaigning efforts have been spearheaded by smaller grassroots groups. Last September, we reported the story of Bushwick Berners, a community outreach group that spends many Saturday mornings canvassing on behalf of the senator. To drum up interest among Bushwick’s young, hip, and artsy, the organization held a benefit show at Shea Stadium to register voters, donating the proceeds from merch and the $8 cover charge directly to the campaign. Last month, Bushwick Berners held a similar event at the Gateway, over several floors, but kept the price of admission at eight bucks.
The campaign-sanctioned Baby’s All Right event has already taken on a markedly different feel from those scrappy DIY benefits, for better or worse. The venue has been transformed into a sort of Sanders fundraising HQ, with computers set up to log names and emails of potential donors, volunteers, and petition signers; a photo booth with progressive props; a table full of books, tees, and ball caps for sale; a friendly-looking cardboard likeness of the man himself; and a huge banner spanning the stage. Though it was rumored that Sanders himself would show, that didn’t happen; instead, a closely regimented schedule of musicians took their turns on the stage, punctuated by speakers from various organizations that endorse Sanders espousing his various virtues.
Organized in part by Winnie Wong, the co-founder of People for Bernie (they’re responsible for the hashtag #FeelTheBern, by the way), the event attracted the attention of some artists, both emerging and established, with serious indie cred. Tuesday night’s lineup included Will Sheff of Okkervil River, Kevin Devine, Frankie Cosmos, and Jana Hunter of Lower Dens, among others. Tonight’s show will feature Cass McCombs (who’s in town to play the Bowery Ballroom on Thursday), Dee Dee of Dum Dum Girls, Wet, and Mas Ysa. Wong’s background as a veteran organizer with Occupy Wall Street made supporting Sanders a “no-brainer.” “He might be a senator, but he’s from the 99 percent. And he wears it like a badge of honor,” she explains. “Zach [Mexico, one of the co-owners] of Baby’s is an old friend of mine and a Bernie supporter. We had lunch one day and got to talking about how we could support Bernie and it all came together pretty organically. Many of the artists who participated are personal friends of mine or of Zach’s. A few were suggested by the national campaign HQ in Vermont.”
Some, like Frankie Cosmos, don’t focus on the political in their work. Asked to play by her friend Billy Jones (the other owner of Baby’s), Greta Kline, the primary songwriter behind Frankie Cosmos, admitted that it was “weird” to wind up on a political benefit’s bill. “Our music is so not political!” she said last night, laughing. “We were joking about that today at band practice. Our songs are silly — they’re about dating and stupid, flippant stuff. But I thought maybe we could bring out some bodies to the show, people that maybe wouldn’t come to something like this.”
Kline just turned 21 and recognizes that a lot of people her age come off as politically apathetic, but she says a lot of that is because they’re getting their news from a social-media echo chamber. “You only see what people you’re friends with are posting, so you end up thinking, ‘Oh, everyone is gonna vote for Bernie Sanders!’ ” she says. “But then you talk to your friends’ parents and see what the rest of America is saying. So I think that’s part of the problem.” As a band, Frankie Cosmos wanted to show their support for Sanders. Drummer Luke Pyenson shows me their emphatic text-messaging chain, where Kline asked if the band was into doing the benefit; one response said, “OMG WE HAVE TO.”
Similarly, Sheff says that he never set out to write politically minded material. “In the past, I guess I stayed away [from politics] because I looked around and couldn’t find a lot of examples of political art or music that felt graceful to me. It always felt like the artist was selling something, and, in the process of selling something — even a good cause — they were breaking down some of the purity of their relationship to the listener,” Sheff said via email. “At a certain point I started to feel that, even though ‘selling’ political ideas could potentially damage the relationship of trust between my work and the listener, it was ethically unsound for me to not talk about what I saw happening in the world around me. I started to realize that there were concrete political issues I cared about that, though they seem almost overwhelmingly huge — like the degradation of the earth, or income inequality — were actually quite simple and natural to talk about because they both came down to something as ordinary as greed. I started to feel like not taking a position was more damaging.”
Sheff’s set included favorites from Okkervil River’s catalog, but he also chose to cover Dick Gaughan’s “Workers’ Song,” from the 1981 album Handful of Earth. Its lyrics detail the heartache of class struggle, something Sanders has built a platform on alleviating. “I like almost everything about what Bernie Sanders says and I’m incredibly glad he’s saying it,” Sheff says. “I think these ideas — that there shouldn’t be a different set of rules for the rich than for everyone else, that giant corporations and banks need to be broken down and restricted, that we need to take immediate and dramatic action on climate change, that there should be a carbon tax — need to be out there in everyone’s faces.”
Devine, on the other hand, played songs from his oeuvre that he felt were more “social justice–y,” including a new track he’s calling “Freddie Gray Blues,” which examines police brutality and his own white privilege in heartbreaking detail. He introduced his set by saying that Sanders has “prescriptive ideas for a saner society,” noting that it says a lot when a candidate like Sanders is seen as radical, rather than simply rational. He said he’d never played a political rally — but that this felt like a good place to start.