RNC: Amid Chaos, a Peaceable Concert

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Stepping into the Provention concert on Tuesday night at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, was literally a breath of fresh air. Clouds of dissipated tear gas hovered in the cool evening outside, and a din of antiwar chants, shouts, sirens, and police helicopters echoed through the downtown canyons as I arrived late, delayed by an encounter with several thousand riot police and protesters. Going through the lobby was like disappearing through the looking glass, and soon I found myself settled in a soft velvet chair, fully ensconced in the music of singer-songwriter Haley Bonar, the sound of conflict swept out of my mind by her acoustic guitar and plaintive voice. No longer in danger of being arrested, I was now being serenaded

While other RNC-related protest concerts this week Raged Against the Machine, staged a Coup, and hoisted the Anti-Flag, Provention was a more thoughtful and less in-your-face affair, meant not so much to fight the power as to create a sense of kinship amid chaos. Joe Spencer, the arts and cultural liaison for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman who was instrumental in organizing the concert, said as much from the stage in between sets.

“I’m scared by the guys with the face shields,” he said, referring to the riot police, “and I’m scared by people who are picking up bricks from hundred-year-old buildings and throwing them through windows. So I’m conflicted, and when I feel conflicted I long for a strong sense of community.” Musician John Munson, who originally came up with the Provention idea, called the event “a tent of togetherness.”

Bonar, like most of the performers who followed her, chose songs that hewed roughly to the politely political theme. Introducing “Nobody’s Safe,” she noted that she marched in Monday’s antiwar protest but decried the rabble rousers who took things too far. Her reflective, folky songs were disarmingly honest, and when she said, “St. Paul is a great city,” it didn’t sound like an RNC welcoming slogan but a heartfelt sentiment. (Before I arrived, several acts, including Maria Isa, the New Standards, and Jeremy Messersmith, had already played.)

Next up were the Warblers, the duo of Chris Osgood and Dave Ahl, former members of Twin Cities proto-punks the Suicide Commandos, dressed like dude ranch guests and harmonizing on topical old-time ditties like “Everybody’s Going for the Money” and “Wild in the Streets.” All night long, novelty-style acts like this filled the between-set slots, giving the concert the air of a variety show.

The Warblers were followed by another harmonizing duo, the Twilight Hours, composed of Matt Wilson and John Munson, who played sweet and passionate modern pop that occasionally entered the rock and roll zone, as on Wilson’s sweeping “Descender.” Both former members of beloved Twin Cities band Trip Shakespeare, they still have a strong musical kinship and well-matched voices, with Munson holding down the low end and Wilson holding up the high with his still-boyish timbre. Their opening song, “These Dreams Are Killing Me,” and the Big Star classic “Ballad of El Goodo” were especially delectable. They were joined for a while by Matt’s brother, Dan Wilson, also a former Trip Shakespearean as well as a more recent bandmate of Munson in Semisonic.

Potent, literate rockers the Honeydogs next took the stage as a nine-piece and soon grew to 10, bringing an expansive, textured sound that recalled Elvis Costello’s bigger bands, complete with a three-piece horn section. Leader Adam Levy had a special stake in the concert, having stepped in to help an overwhelmed Munson organize the gig. He acquitted himself well as both concert promoter and bandleader–and as usual made a strong sartorial statement, rocking a pinstriped white suit with a red-bloomed boutonniere. “Truth Serum,” Levy’s plea to his soldier son with the line, “You’re too young to die,” was one of the evening’s most powerfully topical songs.

Dan Wilson next played a solo set, drawing on Semisonic material as well as tunes from his solo album, Free Life, and singing his Grammy-winning song written for the Dixie Chicks, “Easy Silence.” He described the Chicks as “bad-ass” for weathering the right-wing attacks on their infamous George Bush critique.

The final act, New York singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, apparently didn’t get the memo about rhetorical restraint, acerbically riffing on Sarah Palin, Ronald Reagan, Joe Lieberman and other ripe targets in song and speech. “She’s a zealot,” Levy noted as he introduced her, and this was not a complaint but a compliment. McKay’s smart wordplay and all-over-the-place sound made for a bracing conclusion to the concert despite a thinning crowd.

When I finally stepped back onto the streets well after midnight, it was quiet and still, with little sign of the night’s earlier chaos. It seemed that Provention, which was billed as “a concert for people, peace, and the planet,” had achieved a bit of good on all three fronts.

Image by Charles Robinson.

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