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Area Musicians Assess the Price of Playing Politics

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VERMONT -- Bernie Sanders and Rich Tarrant aren't the only ones providing the sound bites in Vermont's heated U.S. Senate race: Both candidates are using local bands to get voters to listen up. The Starline Rhythm Boys got top billing in a recent recorded phone message from the Tarrant campaign urging attendance at a Memorial Day cookout at the Old Lantern in Charlotte.

Four days later, the band Ramble Dove -- composed of Mike Gordon, plus Marie Claire, Neil Cleary, Brett Hughes, Gordon Stone and Scott Murawski -- gave it up for Bernie Sanders at Higher Ground.

Could it be a coincidence that both bands played honky-tonk?

Music has been a part of political campaigns since the Founding Fathers came up with such catchy tunes as "Follow Washington," "For Jefferson and Liberty" and "Huzzah for Madison, Huzzah." More recent presidential wannabes have adopted already-existing songs, with mixed success. Everyone remembers what happened when Ronald Reagan forgot to check in with Bruce Springsteen before he appropriated "Born in the U.S.A." George W. Bush's blunder last year with "Still the One" inspired similar protest from singer-songwriter John Hall. Coincidentally, the 57-year-old co-founder of Orleans has since launched his own bid for Congress.

Typically, musicians don't lend their lyrics lightly to causes -- or candidates. Blending brands is tricky business. Would Gordon ever play for a politician he didn't plan to vote for? "No," says the former Phish bassist. "I would hardly even play for a candidate that I do support."

Friday night marked a new direction for Gordon, who praised Sanders from the stage, seemingly on behalf of his entire band. "I've never before acted on my political passions," Gordon explains, noting he got the idea for the benefit gig after hearing Bernie speak a few weeks ago. "It reminded me how incredibly smart and courageous he is . . . I called my manager and said I wanted to do something." Everyone else who played that night -- from Grace Potter to Jon Fishman and Page McConnell -- was on the same page, er, stage.

What does that say about The Starline Rhythm Boys, a former Bernie band now vending their carefully crafted retro brand to Tarrant? The popular group has become the Republican's de facto house band. They provided the soundtrack for his kick-off campaign event last month and "pretty much do all of our cookouts," according to a friendly staff person at the Tarrant for Senate headquarters.

Tarrant Campaign Manager Tim Lennon confirms the relationship, but claims the band isn't booked beyond last Monday's Lamoille County cookout at the VFW in Hyde Park. He also downplays the power of audio association. Music is a marketing device, he concedes, but the band is just there to entertain, not endorse. "Obviously the goal is for the candidate's message to be heard," Lennon says. "The music is there to draw people -- different people -- who might not come to a straight political talk, but would come for a fun evening out."

Starline delivers. "Rich has been a fan of theirs for a long time," Lennon explains. "Whenever we had a need for a band, he was always enthusiastically pushing for the Starline Rhythm Boys."

Is the feeling mutual? The band's lead singer and spokesman, Danny Coane, appeared to be caught off-guard by the query. Apparently it hadn't occurred to him or his band- mates that rocking on the "right" side of the aisle might be viewed as a political statement. So they did what any panicked candidate would do: Instead of calling a reporter back, five days later they responded with a "statement" explaining their campaign-season performance philosophy. Anyone looking for info on their otherwise excellent website would find the band's Lamoille County Cookout gig noted only as a "private function."

". . . We will perform at any function for any candidate, party, or elected official who wants to hire us for an agreed fee, assuming our schedule permits," the Starline statement reads. "We do not consider ourselves to be a politically aligned group since we, as a group, do not endorse any candidate, party or elected official simply because we perform at a function for him or her; our role in being hired to perform is solely to provide entertainment for the persons attending the event. We feel that our performance at an event for any political candidate is no different than the media accepting paid advertising or a vendor working for a fee from that person or party."

Any party? What if George W. or Tom DeLay wanted the Boys to back them? Starline likens their role to that of a caterer. But does a vendor working behind the scenes hold the same sway as recognizable rockers sharing a stage with the candidate? It depends on whom you ask. "If Kid Rock came in and said, 'Vote Republican,' or Bruce Springsteen said, 'Vote Democrat,' it wouldn't change people's opinions of the candidates themselves," Lennon insists. "I don't think the band influences the vote."

Gordon sees it differently. When Phish was together, he recalls, "There was this big deal about separating music and politics, not only within the band but with each band member. It was controversial. Why should we have the right as musicians to be preaching our opinion in non-musical arenas? That was the question." Like Springsteen, Bono and the Dixie Chicks, they knew instinctively that a rock star's word -- or lyric -- is worth a thousand television commercials.

Gordon appears to be more comfortable wielding his celebrity power now. "I think we raised more money than any other benefit, more than Al Franken, is what I heard," he says. "And in terms of raising consciousness among young people . . . All we're saying is, we want you to be aware there is this candidate out there who seems great to us. Check it out and register to vote."

By the end of the final sing-along, about 15 had done just that.

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