Bright Eyes, Cursive Rock the Concert for Equality
Rock and politics have a long history together. Done well (Fela Kuti), poorly (Green Day), or somewhere in between (U2), they’re an interesting marriage: politics feeding off of rock’s youth, energy, and vibrancy. Rock feeding off of politic’s legitimacy, tangibility, and agency to manifest real change. They’re Lemmon and Mathau, odd but enduring.
When Fremont, NE passed a bill barring landlords and employers from dealing with illegal immigrants, the reaction of local musicians brought rock and politics together once again.
The Concert for Equality, held outdoors on Military Ave between Maple and Binney Streets and inside the Waiting Room, was a local response to a national debate. But it became much more than a local concert. The first person I talked to had driven from Indiana for the show. Next, I met five girls from Watertown, SD, almost five hours away. And then Carissa Miller, 19, from Peoria, Illinois of all places, the great American litmus test of a city learning ever more leftist, apparently.
It took Carissa six and half hours to make the trip. She bought her tickets immediately after seeing an interview with Conor Oberst, favorite son and part time soap-boxist. Hesitation? "Not in the least bit at all."
Carissa was representative of good majority of the concert-goers: skewed young, excited to see a rare line up, and, if not politically active, at least aligned with the concert’s underlying principles. It was a show where two fashion bloggers from Chicago could coexist with the ACLU passing out free t-shirts. Sociology professors could heatedly debate Fremont (4.3% Latino) passing a largely symbolic bill that would be untenable in, say, Lexington (51.5% Latino), while clove-smoking students filled up on cheap beer and sunshine. It was fun.
The Concert for Equality Bill
The concert began with Flowers Forever, a bouncy side project of Tilly and the Wall frontman Dereck Pressnall. Ticket holders continued to stream into the temporary gated corridor, some running for front stage spots. Luckily, my visions of some tragic Mayan/Benson ball court crush proved unfounded as Flowers Forever finished up.
They gave way to Vago, Fremont based, but holding their own through a cover-heavy set featuring "Spanish Bombs," the Clash cut steeped in the politics of the Spanish Civil War.
The Envy Corps, to my knowledge last seen in Omaha during 1/Fourth’s yearly Carnival party, took the stage as a harsh evening sun angled ever more acutely, all the better to reflect off the chunky librarian glasses so oddly popular now. The Corps, originally from Ames but reppin’ Des Moines, channeled the live energy and loose atmospherics of the Flaming Lips on songs like Screen Test, with lead-singer Luke Pettipoole’s indie-falsetto immediately passing into the Tay Zonday “I-can’t-believe-that-guy-has-that-voice” Memorial Pantheon.
And then a little band called Bright Eyes played.
Principal concert organizer Conor Oberst opened with "Trees Wheeled Away,"bursting through a fairly brief set rich with fan favorites. Oberst was joined onstage by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings for "We Are Nowhere and It’s Now," not to mention producing partner Mike Mogis, whose intertwined pedal steel work accompanied the raw energy of Oberst’s guitar playing wonderfully. The only disappointment was the sound: a muddy mix, abrasively trebly, turned trumpeter Nate Walcott’s high notes into a threat, ground hugging speaker placements forcing more than one front row concert-goer around for some back-lot respite.
Welch and Rawlings stuck around for a folksy set of their own as I went to grab some food. It was hard to resist, the down tempo Californian duo’s music serving as the perfect backdrop for a vegetarian offering from the Burrito Guy, today tucked neatly into a garage owned by Benson contractor Mick Goslin. The makeshift restaurant served hundreds of a happy patrons, the equivalent of the ubiquitous festival chill out tent. It was another apropos in an evening that just somehow came together, with onstage interstitials from the ACLU and The Sound Strike, a Rage Against the Machine-like slam poet, and the sad story and touching solo, sung in Spanish, of Erica, an Oberst family friend, whose mother returned to Mexico, only to be banned from the US for 10 years.
Under the glow of the streetlights, Cursive took the stage, playing possibly the loudest set of the night—was that Presnall crowd surfacing at one point?—leading up perfectly to headliners Desaparecidos, back from a brief eight year layoff. Desaparecidos, whose name is a fitting reference to the political dissidents who simply "disappear" in South America, are a punk band who fizzled out on the cusp of bigger things, as frontman Oberst began devoting more time to Bright Eyes. Tonight, the only fizzling was feedback from the amps, as Desaparecidos closed their set to cheers for change, great applause, and a smashed bass guitar.
Continuing indoors, holders of the coveted premium bracelets were then treated to a rare reunion from Lullaby for the Working Class. Following a well played but unfortunately lethargic set from Welch and Rawlings (I’ll give them another try on album, I swear), a final last gas labeled simply the "Hootenanny"—rumored to include Jeff Tweedy—begun. A Wilco-less but inspired showing of Conor & Friends closed the night the only way it could: a political sing along…
"They’re building the new Berlin Wall / Down from California to Texas so tall…"
Clearly, rock and politics aren’t getting divorced any time soon.