The following piece is published on Iowa Independent as well as HuffPost's OffTheBus.
A politician takes a risk sharing the stage with a rock star. There's the charisma factor, and if the musicians play first your speech has to match the music.
John Edwards is taking the chance this week in Iowa, touring the state with musicians Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. The two musicians are no strangers to political activism, organizing the No Nukes concerts way back in 1979 with John Hall of Orleans (now Congressman John Hall, D-N.Y.)
"We had a choice who to throw our guitars behind," said Raitt from the stage at City High in Iowa City, "and he's the strongests most effective advocate for the issues we believe are so important, especially on the progressive end -- health care and the Iraq war. He's got the backbone and the, ahem, stuff (laughter) to follow through."
The show opened with Jackson Browne's "World in Motion" and its introductory line "Sun going down on the USA" (a trend Edwards would presumably reverse) with Raitt on harmony and her famous bottleneck slide guitar. They're both on acoustic guitars, with just an electric bass and no drums. This version improved on the synth-heavy 1989 original, which had a dated sound but apparently not dated lyrics.
The rest of the songs were written by others, but are signature songs for Raitt and Browne, whose versions are considered definitive. Local musicians Bo Ramsey, Greg Brown and others come up to sing backup and Bonnie dedicates John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery" to the forgotten, invisible women (edging a little close to some Hillary Clinton campaign themes).
Jackson Browne offers Steve Van Zandt's "I Am A Patriot." With Edwards in the house, he changes one line in the climactic verse:
And I ain't no communist, and I ain't no capitalist
And I ain't no socialist
and I sure ain't no imperialist
And I ain't no Democrat
And I ain't no Republican either
And I only know one party
and its name is freedom
Browne sings "Maybe I'm a Democrat," and "I ain't no Republican" draws loud cheers.
"The real rock star in our hearts tonight is John Edwards," says Raitt as she switches to electric guitar. She says it's cool that young people actually recognized her when she and Browne visited a local vintage record store, but she sells herself short; that red hair with the silver streak in front is a part of rock and roll iconography.
They close with "Thing Called Love," the John Hiatt song that shot Raitt to delayed superstardom in 1989. Browne takes one verse than, with the applause still rolling, he offers the minimalist, Next President Of The United States intro of Edwards as Stevie Ray Vaughan's "The House Is Rockin'" plays. The musicians exit and watch the rest of the proceedings from the traditional musician vantage point: the wings of the stage.
The current, populist version of the Edwards stump speech has a little rock and roll to it, so he doesn't lose the energy the musicians built for him. He leads with the obligatory "Elizabeth's great" reference and spends a little more time than usual on the war. "All the Democratic candidates say they'll end the war and I'm very glad about that. You know, there's a big difference between us and the Republicans candidates, who as far as I can see are just Bush on steroids."
But then Edwards draws distinctions. "Every Democratic presidential candidate is entitled to their views. But some of our views are different and you deserve to know those differences. For example, I have heard Senator Clinton say that she will keep combat troops in Iraq, and will continue combat missions in Iraq. To me, that's a continuation of the war and a continuation of the occupation, and we must end this end this occupation and we must end this war."
"We have to stop these people" from starting another war in Iran, he says of the Bush administration, to a partial standing O. "The Democratic Party is going to have to show a little backbone and a little spine." Then he zings Clinton again on the "Revolutionary Guard as Terrorist Organization" Iran vote.
The lobbyist and special interest section leads to a climax of "Brothers and sisters, it is time to take back this democracy." This speech has more call and response, more shouted en masse NO!s and YES!s from the audience, than in the past. Discussing health care, Edwards takes a not-by-name shot at Barack Obama's politics of conciliation:
"I listen to other presidential candidates, and they're good people. Very good people. But they continue to suggest that they way we're going to do this is we're going to sit at the table and negotiate and compromise with drug companies, insurance companies, oil companies, power companies, big banks. Than is a fantasy. These people have no intention of giving their power away. I'll tell you how we're going to get their power away from them, we're hoping to take it away from them."