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In Chicago, Wilco Takes The Stage For Barack Obama

03/28/2008 02:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The following piece was produced by HuffPost's OffTheBus.

Friday night on the northside of Chicago, and it's a cold one: mid 20's to be exact. I arrive at the old Riviera Theater an hour early to survey the scene before Barack Obama's Change Rocks concert. An apparent last fling in this home state for the senator, he is set to share the stage with another beloved hometown act, indie rock luminaries Wilco.

My assumptions of a youthful audience are confirmed as several 20 to 30-something men and women arrive in cabs and cars, and form a line under the guidance of the theater's outdoor security. Inside, under bright lights, warm and jacketless, are about 20 to 30 campaign volunteers receiving their marching orders from staff.

A local broadcaster I recognize is asking the campaign about an interview. I can't tell if it's with Obama or one of the musicians, but she's turned away from the door after a brief word with a campaign staffer, back into the night to wait, like the rest of us, for the 7 p.m. start time.

I speak to a few of the people in line, like 16-year-old Rebecca Hersick, from the suburbs of Chicago, who says she'd probably vote for Obama, if she could. This is her first time seeing the senator in person.

"I can't vote, I'm only 16 but I like to get out and see what I can, when I do talk about it, if I do talk about it," Hersick says. Her friends, she says are "not really interested in politics." She says the friends she does talk politics with like Obama. "I think just because he puts himself out there and gets into MySpace, he has MySpace ads and stuff like that and .. he tries to relate to them."

Pat O'Connor, who drove in from southern Ohio is standing further down in line with her son. She tells me that her daughter is one of the musicians performing tonight, but she also supports Obama. This is also her first time attending an Obama event.

"I feel that he will engender respect in other parts of the world at a time when we really need someone who can communicate and I also think that he represents a wide cross section of the American people and I like that," she says.

I ask O'Connor if she plans to vote for Obama in her state's primary.

"I'm not sure what the date is of our primary," she replies.

My fingers are now numb, as the cold has seeped through my gloves and my toes feel like they'll soon be next, but 7 o'clock has finally arrived. The press is admitted after a brief pat-down from a female security guard. Security is tight tonight. The campaign has specified "no bags are allowed" in their emails and for the rest of the night, I won't walk 5 feet without running into security. They're everywhere.

There's a table with volunteers selling Obama bumper stickers, pins and the like, drawing the attention of several. The majority of attendees make for one of the many cash bars. If you didn't know otherwise from the Obama table, the scene resembles a dimly lit club more than a political event.

Bonnie Agnew, a community college professor from the suburbs of Chicago, is circling about with a drink in hand and I ask her about her thoughts on the senator. She says she's been supporting Obama's campaign for awhile and has been to some of his other events, as well as volunteered for him. Though she won't be volunteering in the next few weeks because she'll be on vacation.

"I did make phone calls for them to Iowa from Chicago," Agnew says. "I think Senator Obama is the only one...and John Edwards, too ... giving hope and I'm a community college professor and I see young people not having hope, not being involved in the political process, apathetic and we need somebody that age, a new generation, rather than the Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton generation."

I ask her if Obama's vote on the Iraq war was a factor in her support early on. The campaign has presented this fact often to distinguish Obama from other candidates.

"I think the Iraq war is a major issue," she replies. But she continues on to say that she's more concerned about the idea of hope. "I don't think the war's going to end, I don't think either party can really end the war. I think that we're going to be in there for awhile."

I next make my way over to Martha Heilman and Jane Enis from the north suburb of Glenview who are waiting for Heilman's adult daughter to arrive.

I ask them about their thoughts on Obama's electability.

Heilman responds, "Yeah, I do worry about that." Though Enis disagrees. "See, I don't worry about that as much." she says. "I think Hillary is going to be harder to elect because I think there's so many people who just really, really don't like her."

A steady trickle of supporters continues throughout the night, though the venue never sells out to its capacity of 2,300. There remains plenty of space on the main floor and in the balcony.

About 30 minutes into it all, The Cool Kids, a young local rap duo, take the stage as the hosts.
Naturally, their forte isn't emceeing political events and their banter back and forth never manages to reach the crowd. Two more Chicago acts take the stage to perform: a very energetic Canasta followed by The Changes. But, the crowd isn't really paying anyone on stage much attention and most appear deep in conversation. The night seems long by now, so I go to check out the balcony view. This is where the $35 to $50 ticket holders are stationed. They've been the loudest so far.

Jeff Tweedy and "two-thirds of Wilco" arrive onstage at nearly 9 p.m. Obama is scheduled to speak at 9:15, according to a nearby campaign staffer I ask. There's no word on singer Macy Gray's scheduled performance at this point.

The atmosphere quickly changes and Tweedy's vocals draw many in. The crowd has now become inspired for more Wilco. Tweedy sings a few politically focused songs intentionally, chatting briefly in between. He then announces the group's final song and when this one ends, he introduces Barack Obama as "the next President of the United States."

Everyone moves up to get a better view and the house lights go up. What appear to be Secret Service agents can be seen in the back right corner of the stage.

Obama thanks the crowd repeatedly as they cheer for several seconds, adding, "You're making me blush."

Following more thanks to the performers and the venue management, Obama talks about how he's promised his sister's best friend, who he describes as the "the biggest fan" of Wilco, something signed by them. He admonishes Tweedy and the guys to stick around.

He takes a more serious turn.

"You know I've been running for president now for about 10 months, and you know it turns out that uh, we might win." he says to sustained cheering from the audience.

"It's possible, it's possible, they said it wasn't possible, but it's possible," he continues with increasing volume as the crowd cheer with him. "They said it couldn't be done, but it might be done."

"What's amazing is the enormous crowds that we attract," he boasts. "We've had 25, 000 people in New York City, 20,000 in Austin, Texas, 20,000 in Atlanta, GA, 10,000 in Iowa City and what's inspiring is not just the size of the crowds but it's the make up of the crowds, because there's people from all walks of life, you've got young people, you've got old people, you've got blacks, whites, Hispanics, Native Americans, gay, straight, you name it, we've got democrats, and yes we even have some republicans."

Then Obama attempts to define the voters' ideals.

"People don't just want to be against something, people want to be for something." Obama declares. "We are at a defining moment in our history. The nation is at war, the planet is in peril, the dream that so many generations fought for feels like it's slipping away."

He introduces the topic of the economy in general terms, saying that Americans have "lost faith that their leaders can or will do something about it."

He returns again to several minutes of identifying voters' ideals, talking about what's wrong with the current administration and the failures of Bush's presidency, calling it more corrupt than Chicago, after one supporter shouts this out from the audience.

I find it interesting that Obama again connects republicans in the same boat as democrats by saying, "Not just democrats, but also republicans have also lost faith."

He finally turns toward policy as he describes his "Walk A Day in My Shoes" experience with the labor union, SEIU. He tells of how he spent the day cleaning and aiding a home health care worker and her patient.

"Michelle couldn't believe it when she heard this, but I showed her the video," he says to much laughter from the audience.

Here Obama takes the opportunity to tie in the SEIU member's feelings to the crowd, using more broad rallying points to solidify the endeavor.

"She feels like she's on her own and she's been told she's on her own, just like you've been told that you're on your own." And suddenly the audience becomes very quiet. "That's why I'm running for president, because we're not on our own, we've just been told that we're on our own.... we have been told to be afraid of each other and that is not true, that is not what America is about and we need a new generation of Americans to say that you are part of me, that I am my brother's keeper, that I am my sister's keeper and there's no reason we can't change this country... that's the reason I'm running for president of the United States of America."

Obama pledges to the crowd he will bring the troops home from Iraq in "6 to 8 months." He then evokes words from JFK, saying "because I remember what John F. Kennedy said 'we should never negotiate our fear but we should never fear to negotiate.'"

He says he will close Guantanamo and restore habeas corpus, at which point he's clearly shouting over the cheers and there's a couple of people in the crowd who are discreetly shielding their ears from the volume emitting from the speakers.

He mentions climate change, poverty, genocide, and disease without policy specifics on them.

Finally, he ends with a repeated chant: "Our moment is now, Chicago our moment is now, this is our moment. I don't want to pit red America against blue America, I want to be the president of the United States of America."

Obama then makes this assertion to the crowd.

"Me standing here is improbable, it's unlikely ... I'm running because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now ... because I believe in something called being too late and that hour is almost approaching and I don't want to wake up four years from now and find out millions of people still don't have health insurance ...the ocean has risen a few more inches and the planet's reached the point of no return ... I don't want that future for my daughters, I don't want that future for your sons, I don't want that future for America!"

Just before exiting the stage, Obama makes a brief mention of his work in the senate and as a community organizer and finishes with a call to action for the audience: "Let's get to work, right now, thank you."

And as for headliner Macy Gray? As of 9:30 p.m. volunteers were telling those leaving to stick around for her. I confirm with a campaign staffer who says she's not yet in the building and will be there in 45 minutes.