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Lyrical protests in Malibu

May 03, 2008|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Eddie Vedder reached into the deep songbook of American protest on Thursday night and pulled out a 4-decade-old civil rights polemic, the Phil Ochs song "Here's to the State of Mississippi," which the Pearl Jam singer changed lyrically into an attack on the current presidential administration:

Here's to the land you tore out the heart of,

George W. find yourself another country to be part of. . . .

Vedder had searing intensity while he was singing, but he deflated a bit when he was done. "I can't wait until we don't have to sing these songs anymore," the rock star told the decidedly partisan crowd gathered at the Malibu Performing Arts Center.

Vedder's mix of reflection, anger and dejection encapsulated much of the mood of the evening's program, a taping of "The People Speak," an ongoing series of spoken-word and music performances that will be shaped into a documentary film of the same name.

The stage events, which began in Boston in January, are inspired by Howard Zinn's 1980 book, "A People's History of the United States," and, like that book, the words from the stage are from primary historical documents, such as a letter that a freed slave sent to his former owner. The film, which will weave the spartan stage presentations with other footage, is to be released this fall.

The readings Thursday were done by Hollywood notables Sean Penn, Sandra Oh, Benjamin Bratt, Don Cheadle, Casey Affleck and Rosario Dawson, and Josh Brolin was the host. The crowd was dotted with celebrities as well, among them Barbra Streisand, Diane Lane and Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The readings were intense, but music propelled the evening. A bearded Jackson Browne sang a coiled version of his 1986 track "Lives in the Balance," and the Robinson brothers of Black Crowes fame chose "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The earthy set by bluesman Taj Mahal was the only truly buoyant moment with "Baby Please Don't Go."

John Doe and Exene Cervenka of the seminal L.A. punk band X performed their classic "The New World" with its line: "It was better before / before they voted for what's-his-name." Afterward, Doe, like Vedder, seemed to wonder when the old songs of the left would stop feeling so right for the moment. "That was a song written for Ronald Reagan . . . that's the bad part."

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geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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