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Registering their opinions

Musicians gather at two L.A. venues to raise funds for groups trying to unseat President Bush.

August 12, 2004|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Summer movies have heroes, sure, but really, they live and die by the quality of their villains. Booing is more fun than cheering, which brings us to Tuesday night at the El Rey Theatre, where some musicians gathered for an acoustic show titled "Unplug Bush."

If there was any doubt about the designated bad guy, near the entrance stood a life-size cutout of the 43rd president of the United States with a black hat perched on his head.

The lineup included the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Michelle Shocked, Mellowdrone and Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, all singing to raise funds for the Committee to Redefeat the President, one of a legion of political groups that have sprung up this season with a program of concerts-as-activism.

The show was modest -- the crowd of 150 or so left plenty of room to stretch out -- but it was just part of a robust and growing wave of fund-raising concerts showing that in this campaign, the rock constituency always exits stage left.

The anti-Bush events in L.A. have been wildly diverse in form and content. Last month, the sequin and limo crowd got Barbra Streisand for Kerry at Disney Hall. On Tuesday night, the ragged-jeans set got John Doe of X at the Echo on Sunset.

The deluge will crest with a series of swing-state shows in October that bring the big guns in the form of Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and R.E.M., and while no one questions whether the box-office receipts will come in handy for the Democrats' cause, there is considerable debate whether celebrity endorsements of any sort really matter in the voting booth.

The show at the El Rey did not seek to sway undecided voters. This was a crowd of true believers, and the performers were preaching to the choir. Actually, the opening was a choir -- the George W. Bush Singers, a loopy novelty act that uses samples of the president's malapropisms to mock him. The GOP candidate took plenty of other gibes during the evening, and his wife, Laura Bush, was portrayed in unkind fashion by a comedian in drag.

One of the performers, Brandon Jordan of the punk band Kill Radio, got a chuckle when he asked if there were any Bush supporters in the house, but he wasn't making a joke. "Did anyone come here for the music and you're still voting for Bush? If so, I give you a lot of respect."

Offstage, Jordan said that Bush had inspired more venom than any right-wing politician since President Nixon, but that tolerance and respect would sway more minds than slurs. "The artist community really feels up against the wall right now, and that's why you're seeing these shows and more political songs."

The show at the Echo the same night, with Doe, Kristen Hersh and Grant-Lee Phillips on the bill, was part of a loose series of concerts that go under the banner of Concerts for Victory, a group working in tandem with America Coming Together. The group says its 40 shows in 12 cities have raised $200,000 for the Democratic ticket.

The El Rey show was organized by Susan Mainzer, a publicist who left the music industry last year to devote her labors to political causes and candidates. She said the surge in political emphasis from the stage was heartening to see, but resulted from a dread of current events.

"I wanted to make a difference, and now is the time to do it," she said. "A lot of people are feeling that way."

Despite the funny T-shirts and bumper stickers for sale in the rear of the hall, the mood onstage was angry and at times dour.

Napolitano sang of fearing for children's lives and performed a haunting version of "Ghost Riders in the Sky." The outspoken Shocked flashed a sentiment that has laced through many of the political concerts when she chided not Bush, but Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry.

"John Kerry doesn't stand for anything," Shocked said. "We know that. We're going along with that."

Many left with anti-Bush gear, and that was after paying $50 for admission, a price that likely limited the turnout. Noting the checkbook commitment, Jonathan Bates, singer of the group Mellowdrone, kept his political comments to a minimum. "If you paid $50 to get in here, I guess you're voting." (There was a $20 discount offered to patrons who were registered -- not as voters, but as members of a fan group for headliners Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.)

Kerry's name was spoken fewer than half a dozen times during the course of the five-hour show, while his opponent was constantly mentioned.

The members of Mellowdrone even brought a Bush cutout onstage with them. The three band members sat during their set so that the faux commander-in-chief, grinning and still leading in the polls, was the only one standing in the spotlight.

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