Stars invade Oz: Dylan, the Stones, the Boss, Jackson Browne, and many more

Can music make a difference
Christopher Sheil

"You fasten your triggers
For the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in mud"

- Bob Dylan, Masters of War (1963)

"We walk the highwire
Putting the world out on a deadline
And hoping they don't catch the shellfire
With hot guns and cold, cold nights
We walk the highwire
Putting the world out on a deadline
Catching the bite on primetime
With hot guns and cold, cold nights"

- The Rolling Stones, Highwire (1990)

Regardless of the local alarums about terrorism, and despite the threats of wars, an unprecedented number of leading international artists have scheduled tours to Australia this summer.

Bob Dylan (supported by Ani DiFranco and The Waifs), the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, Jackson Browne with his full band, Santana, Marianne Faithfull, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles (supported by Max Merritt and the Meteors), James Taylor, Counting Crows, and John Mayall and the Blues Breakers are just some of the overseas stars on their way. And hot on the heels of February-March, the still incomplete list for the annual Easter East Coast Blues Festival at Byron Bay already includes Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, Eric Burdon and the New Animals, Jimmy Vaughan, Michelle Shocked, Ike Turner and the Blind Boys of Alabama, as well as the typical feast of local talent. 

Australia has never before been visited by such a concentrated line-up of international acts. Creating and performing in fields where fickle searches for new talent ever bubble, all have endured above the unruly ruck of pop and country music. Who's missing from the serious - and still living - hall of fame? Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and U2 are among the few obvious giants to spring to mind.

As the artists command the world's biggest audiences, a sideline interest in the prospective season - that is, apart from the upliftedness such tours can bring - is the politics associated with these leading cultural as well as musical influences.

Dylan, of course, first made his name as a herald of social and cultural change, before rejecting, transcending, and intermittently returning to the wheel - as the release of the bootlegs from his famous Rolling Thunder Revue (Bob Dylan Live 1975) has so recently reminded us. Whatever Dylan is up to, even if it is explicitly nothing, seems to carry political tonalities.

As remote as the Stones can seem today, their music remains authentically based on country-blues. Long ago, Mick Jagger famously composed Street Fighting Man following a Vietnam Solidarity demonstration in 1968 (publishing it in Tariq Ali's paper, The Black Dwarf). More recently, the band released the questioning Highwire during the first Gulf War, has continued to stage performances for good causes, and Keith Richards - who, along with Dylan, has achieved a certain senior statesman status - has become known for fearless wisdom.

Marianne Faithfull's celebrated Broken English was inspired by the Baadar-Meinhof Gang ("the same blocked emotions that turn some people into junkies turn others into terrorists"). With the dubious honour of having been officially denounced as a witch by the Vatican press, Faithfull's spells of realism and romance often echo the times.

Springsteen's songs draw on a variously boistrous, melancholic and soulful working class communitarianism, and his The Rising has been acknowledged along with Steve Earle's Jerusalem as among the most satisfying responses by an artist to the events of September 11.

Can musicians make a difference? Will the stars refrain from explicit politics? In a Sydney Morning Herald tour preview (31 December), Mike Seccombe noted the political character of Jackson Browne's latest album, Naked Ride Home. In interview, Browne pointed out that there is nothing subtle about the way the US establishment seeks to 'squelch' criticism, citing the example of his fellow performer, Steve Earle, whose song John Walker's Blues was banned by radio stations and attacked by politicians as unpatriotic.

Earle's song was written from the view point of John Walker Lindh, a young American captured in Afghanistan, brought back to the US, and recently sentenced to 20 years' jail for assisting the Taliban. Said Browne:

... I think what Steve Earle did is brilliant and raised some really interesting questions ... I mean, how did this kid grow up in America and embrace not only Islam, but become this Taliban fighter? I think it's shameful, but all too predictable [that Earle] was chastised for doing what has always been the artist's role. I think that the questions are needed. In the case of the United States, not only does the government like to squelch any kind of criticism or opposition, its means of doing so is to make people feel as if they are unpatriotic if they raise any sorts of questions.

Sound familiar? It could be an interesting as well as entertaining summer.

Christopher Sheil, a Visiting Fellow in the School of History at UNSW, is a member of the Evatt Foundation's Executive Committee. For the full tour dates (and bookings) for most concerts, go to Ticketek. For Byron Bay, see the site of the East Coast Blues and Roots Festival.

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