By Timothy Dwenger
Photos by Jeffrey V. Smith Wideawake Design and Publicity
e-Town at the DNC Temple Buell Theatre
Tuesday, August 26
There are few things that bring people together like music, but when you have one of the most politically partisan events possible going on and you dare combine with it a musical event of huge proportions you either get something very special or something very volatile.
When the politically and socially active e-Town radio program announced that they were going to stage a show to coincide with the Democratic National Convention here in Denver the buzz began. When they started to announce names like Ani DiFranco, David Crosby, Graham Nash and James Taylor it picked up speed and despite the relatively hefty price tag, tickets went very quickly. As the date approached and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and New Orleans soul legend Irma Thomas were announced to round out the musical portion of the line up the stage was set for a great evening of music.
e-Town, usually recorded in Boulder, moved operations down to Denver for the evening and occupied the large Temple Buell Theater. Just blocks from the site of the DNC it was close enough for many delegates and even a couple of speakers from the event to make an appearance on the program.
The evening began with a few word from Mayor Denver, John Hickenlooper who got some laughs when he described politics as “Rock and Roll for ugly people” and then went on to share an anecdote about Kurt Vonnegut. Apparently, when Hickenlooper was running for mayor he asked Vonnegut, one of his father’s friends, for an endorsement. The notoriously curmudgeonly Vonnegut refused the endorsement but shortly after, Hickenlooper received a note from the author which read “I don’t do endorsements, I do hopes, and I hope that John Hickenlooper becomes the next mayor of Denver.” As the laughter subsided Hickenlooper got a deafening ovation when he said “I hope that Barack Obama becomes the next President of the United States.”
Hickenlooper then introduced the strongly democratic crown to Nick and Helen Forester, the founders and hosts of e-Town who shepherded us through the next several hours of music and conversation.
New Orleans Soul legend Irma Thomas led things off with a number that featured Denver’s own Henry Butler on piano. Butler, who originally hails from New Orleans, relocated to Denver shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated The Crescent City. In the intervening years Butler has become part of the Front Range music community and even graced the e-Town once or twice before. Together, the pair introduced the crowd to Thomas’s sweetly soulful voice before the e-Town house band, the e-Tones, joined the mix. Finally, at Nick Forester’s request the band broke into “Time Is on My Side,” a song, obviously made popular by The Rolling Stones, that Thomas recorded way back in 1964. Thomas and the band were joined by Ani DiFranco and later, for the last chorus, by David Crosby and Graham Nash on background vocals, giving the crowd a sneak peak at some of the collaborations that were to come.
As Thomas and her guests embraced and left the stage with a wave that surely meant “we’ll see you later” Forester took to the mic to introduce a stranger to the folk world, at least until recently, Tom Morello, lead guitarist of Rage Against The Machine. Morello has, for the last year or more, been touring as an acoustic protest singer under the pseudonym The Nightwatchman. While Morello left no doubt in my mind that the time he spends playing with Rage are his bread butter he did run through a couple of decent folky tunes that showed he could hold his own on the acoustic circuit. Two songs about cities, “Midnight In the City of Destruction” and “The Fabled City” anchored his brief set and no sooner than he had unplugged his guitar did Governor Bill Ritter take the stage to a standing ovation.
Ritter focused on a central issue of our times during his remarks, climate change. He spoke of how he had been above the Arctic Circle and that he had seen first hand the changes that many have only read about or seen on screen. He praised Nick and Helen for eTown’s environmental awareness and activism over the last 17 years and issued a call to action that earned him another rousing ovation.
It is clear that while many fans of e-Town are in it for the music they are also politically, socially and environmentally aware and that was abundantly clear on this particular evening.
Following the format of the traditional e-Town, after Bill Ritter left the stage it was time for the e-chievement award. The honoree is always someone who “is working hard to make a positive difference in their communities and beyond.” Forester seemed excited as he announced the award winner saying “we’ve had hundreds of nominations for this man over the years and tonight he can finally join us in person,” before calling Robert Kennedy Jr. from the wings to join him at the mic.
Kennedy, who suffers from a debilitating condition that affects his vocal chords, was at no loss for words as he spoke at length about the Riverkeepers, an organization that sues alleged polluters of the Hudson River, and The Waterkeeper Alliance, which he founded after becoming involved with The Riverkeepers and connects local waterkeeper groups. Kennedy got a big reaction from the crowd when he name checked folk (and protest) singer Pete Seeger and spoke about his teachings before driving home is main point that “rivers are no just a conduit for waste.” His work has supported more than 170 waterkeeper programs worldwide and it is clear that Kennedy is passionate about these programs and the good work that they do.
After Forester finally wrangled Kennedy off the stage he introduced one of the most passionate folk singers of our generation, Ani DiFranco. DiFranco is no stranger to Colorado and has performed on the e-Town program in the past. After commenting on how much she loved taking the stage in front of such a “seething den of Democrats” she attacked her acoustic guitar and brought its percussive side to life as she sang her commentaries on the world with lyrics like “what a waste of opposable thumbs to make machines that are disposable.” As if the applause she received between each song wasn’t enough she nearly brought the house down when she dedicated her final tune to “all the folks who are working in Barack Obama’s camp.”
As the excitement of change and the anticipation of what was to come hung in the air, Forester again took the stage to introduce of the most passionately (and liberal) political singer songwriters of the last 40 years, David Crosby and Graham Nash.
Nash had been nice enough to take some time in the week leading up to the convention to sit down with The Marquee and discuss some of his political feelings and motivations.
“The last show I did with my band, The Hollies, was a Save the Children benefit so I’ve been at this for quite a while and I’ve always thought that dolling out my time is an interesting intellectual exercise so I boiled it down to what was important to me. The most important thing to me is the health of our kids because while they are only about 20% of our population they are 100% of our future so I’ve always put that first,” he said.
Nash also gave some insight into the songs that he and Crosby might sing during the performance at the Buell and while his predictions turned out to be accurate the duo was given a little more time than he had initially expected and they were able to add a song or two their set.
They opened with the classic CSN&Y number “Déjà vu” as a clear nod to the times we are in and also as a bit of a marketing move since the Neil Young produced documentary of their 2006 Freedom of Speech tour hit theaters in early August. While it is clear that they are aging and their voices aren’t everything that they once were, there were flashes of the brilliant harmonies that send chills up your spine and sent them to the top of the charts in the 60’s and 70’s.
From there the duo went into a pair of songs that Nash had mentioned in the interview.
The first, a new song Nash wrote called “In Your Name,” was a powerful anti war ballad that was very well received. “It’s a prayer and I’m talking to God asking ‘What the fuck is going on here.’ What is all this killing in your name?” The second, “In Our Country,” is by Joel Raphael “and it’s a beautiful, beautiful song about how we have to take our country back and stop playing this silly game here,” Nash said in our conversation. “I did it about 18 times on the Crosby Still and Nash tour and it just stuns the audience and we’ve been getting an unbelievable reaction.”
As the thunderous ovation faded away Crosby’s unmistakable guitar intro to “Guinevere” crept through the vast theatre and was soon joined by some of the best harmonies of the night. As the song drew to a close it seemed the pair were finished before Forester whispered something into Crosby’s ear and the e-Tones came out for the iconic “Teach Your Children.” The entire audience sang almost every word and it was clear that all the performers were having the time of their lives. Forester’s work on the Pedal Steel gave the song a country edge that really fleshed out the song.
Though the night was wearing on, past the two and half hour mark, it was time for yet another highlight and out of the wings of the stage came the shiny head of James Taylor. Taylor ran to the microphone at center stage banging his guitar on something along the way and forcing to him to have to retune when he reached the microphone. As he pulled himself and his guitar back together Henry Butler came back out on stage and took his seat at the piano. The first song of Taylor’s short set was the 1968 classic “Wichita Lineman.” The song was made famous by Glen Campbell and is included on Taylor’s upcoming album of cover’s that will be released later this month. His soulful tenor treatment suited the melancholy song perfectly and sent chills through the audience. Taylor continued with the covers and pulled Irma Thomas, Crosby and Nash up onto the stage for a funky New Orleans flavored version of “Hound Dog” that got the audience fired up.
Following the song Forester took the microphone and spoke with Taylor for a moment thanking him for supporting e-Town over the years and reminiscing about a time when Taylor stayed with Forester and his wife Helen in Boulder. All the while Crosby and Nash stood patiently waiting on stage to sing an old chestnut with J.T. As soon as Taylor began plucking the strings the audience broke out in applause for “You Can Close Your Eyes.” Though Crosby joked that he might not remember all the lyrics he and Nash did a fantastic job as the most well paid back up singers in the business hitting the harmonies perfectly and blending in very well with Taylor’s voice.
As if this wasn’t enough the entire cast of the show emerged for a show closing rendition of Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land Is Your Land.” The artists took turns with the verses each giving it their own twist but none quite as dramatically as Tom Morello. Morello went on a 3 or 4 minute rant against everything from Fox News to billionaire bankers and reinstated a verse that has largely disappeared from the popular versions of the song over the years as it has been depoliticized. The fact is that Guthrie was one of the original protest singers and this was a very appropriate place to hear the following verse:
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
All in all, after a magical three hours of intelligent political discourse and fantastic music it was clear that Nick and Helen Forester and their radio show made a distinct mark on a historic Democratic National Convention right here in Denver.
Robert Kennedy Jr.
Graham Nash and David Crosby
Graham Nash and David Crosby
Other shots from around the DNC
Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain String Band at Invesco Field
Sheryl Crow at Invesco Field
Jennifer Hudson at Invesco Field
Stevie Wonder at Invesco Field
wil.i.am at Invesco Field