Say what you like about Barack Obama: Whether or not he succeeds in uniting the Democrats (let alone the country) behind him, this past Monday he drew together a motley coalition including a seasoned comedy trio, a scruffy Brit folk-rock threesome, a natty power-pop combo with a thing for treadmills, a “Police Woman,” a Swedish chanteuse — and Mrs. Jack White. The occasion: “Barack Rock,” an evening of music and comedy at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom, sponsored by GetUpandVote.com. And the hosts? Yet another triad: (pictured, left to right) Michael Ian Black, David Wain, and Michael Showalter, the comedy troupers currently known as Stella.
As the three comics bounded on stage shortly after 8 p.m. — Wain and Black in suits, Showalter coatless in a white-shirt-and-striped-tie ensemble that made him look a bit like a younger John Kerry — Wain set the tone for the evening by admonishing the (overwhelmingly) twenty-something audience: “There’s no ball here tonight, so put away the poodle skirts.” After that zinger, the three launched into an extended comic riff on the presidential candidate du jour. The riff’s madcap surrealism owed more to Monty Python than to Bill Maher or Jon Stewart; in one bit, Black tweaked Obama’s perceived vagueness in matters of policy (“He’s in favor of unicorns…and cupcakes”). At times, the trio’s barbs hovered on the precipice of extreme political incorrectness, suggesting, for instance, that Obama wanted to reestablish concentration camps “in upstate New York” (Showalter, sweetly: “Did the Holocaust really happen?”). Not that the audience seemed to mind. In fact, while all three drew lusty laughs, the balding, bespectacled Wain seemed to be a crowd favorite, even drawing an effusive cry, “David Wain, you’re my Barack Obama!” (Hmmm…was this meant as acclaim for Wain’s popular “Wainy Day” video series on MyDamnChannel.com?)
Such emotional outpourings did not, however, relegate Wain’sStella-mates to John Edwards oblivion. After the first musical set byAlberta Cross — a shaggy-maned London band whose acoustic roots-rockstylings and quavering vocals eerily evoked (to my ears, at least) JimJames and My Morning Jacket — Black, Showalter, and Wain returned todeliver personal meditations on their favorite winter day. The topper:Showalter’s erotic fantasy involving a snowman with a strategicallyplaced carrot. Later, he got to shine in his own musical spotlight,backed by Craig Wedren and Zac Orth as the Doilies and performing acouple of selections from his album Sandwiches & Cats.The second number, “Sandwich Commandments,” a mock-bluesy paean to thewonders of sliced bread, reached fever pitch with a diatribe againstsun-dried tomatoes. (No argument there.)
Speaking of fever pitch, the next musical act, Joan as Police Woman,took the night in a less light-hearted direction with a rousing rocker,the scorchingly political-minded “Are You Not Furious?” (This,introduced by a feverish dance from irrepressible frontwoman JoanWasser, whose dusky voice and soulful piano pop could stand as aharbinger of one possible future for a wiser, sobered-up AmyWinehouse.) True musical catharsis arrived, however, with the evening’sorganizer Craig Wedren, the shaven-headed ex-frontman of D.C.postpunkers Shudder to Think. Backed by Shudder bandmate Nathan Larson,he launched into a set of tight, galvanizing punk-pop that left thisobserver (an admitted Shudder newbie) wondering why his soaring vibratoand dervish onstage energy didn’t win his band a higher profile back inthe ’90s. If only his between-songs patter were as deft: In the onetruly duff note in an evening mostly free of vitriolic Bush- andHillary-bashing, he jokily likened Hillary to the just-defeated NewEngland Patriots. Boos erupted. (Were Boston fans in the house?)Mercifully, Wedren soon brightened the mood by bringing on Larson’swife, Nina Persson of the Cardigans, for a brace of sparkling duets.Lovelier still, Persson was joined by Amy Miles and Jack White’s better(and vocally gifted) half, Karen Elson, to blend hushed harmonies oncovers of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s drowsy charmer “Rain on the Half” andthe Stephen Foster chestnut “Hard Times Come Again No More.” (Thelatter’s evocation of spiritual, if not political, angst seemedfitting.)
Following that folky interlude, the evening’s putative musicalheadliners, OK Go, could be compared to the windup punchlines of anObama speech after a long campaign rally. Dressed in suits and tiesthat put one in mind of a Mitt Romney advance team (yes, that’s onepolitical analogy too many), the Chicago band delivered a catchy, ifconstricted formula of punchy power-pop rave-ups with pared-downchoruses. Even without the benefit of their clever videos,OK Go succeeded in driving at least some of the hitherto sedateaudience into a near-frenzy. (One rather hefty dude near me was dancingso hard the floorboards quaked. I wondered about the structuralsoundness of the Ballroom.) By the time they had stomped through theclosing strains of “Do What You Want” (to my mind their hookiest) —followed by a ragged but effective all-hands closing sing-along of theZombies’ “This Will Be Our Year” — many of the concertgoers seemed inno hurry to depart. Even after Craig Wedren and Co. pointedly urged themultitudes to “get to bed, and get out and vote.”
So what do you think, PopWatchers? Are concerts like these a usefultool for mobilizing the electorate, or just a means ofpreaching/singing to the alt-pop choir? Should the other presidentialhopefuls respond with, say, Metalheads for McCain or Hip-Hoppers forHillary? If you’ve caught Barack Rock on Stereogum or College Humor, orif you were crammed into the Ballroom, what moments did you find mostmemorable? Let your voice be heard (but try to go cast your ballotsfirst).