The audience was dominated by young college students, but all ages were in attendance. It was as diverse a crowd as possible for 88 percent white Iowa City; black and Hispanic students seemed well represented.
The local opening act, the Awful Purdies, a five-woman folk group, connected with an audience that probably had never heard of them, with strong vocal harmonies. They were followed by Lissie, a native of nearby Rock Island, Ill., who filled the cavernous Fieldhouse with just her voice and guitar.
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Jill Sobule, best known for her 1995 hit “I Kissed a Girl,” took an explicitly political turn with her song “The Democratic Socialist Marching Song,” but won the crowd with a profane sing-along song, whose chorus is, “When they say they want America back, well, what the f--k do they mean?”
The first speaker of the night was Josh Hutcherson, famous for his role as Peeta in The Hunger Games. He seemed bemused when many in the audience gave him the three-finger Mockingjay salute from that movie, but pressed onwards with an impassioned speech focused on Sanders’ plans to make higher education more affordable.
Foster the People’s Mark Foster, replete in a bright red suit, played a few of his solo songs with a polite response from an audience that had been standing shoulder to shoulder for three hours. The crowd perked up for “Don’t Stop,” famous for being the soundtrack for a Nissan car commercial.
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Dr. Cornel West delivered a shouted, rhythmic stem-winder of a speech. “This is a moral and spiritual transformation of the nation,” West said, exhorting the audience to “get on the Love Train,” because “justice is what love looks like in public.” He invoked “Nina Simone to Bruce Springsteen to Gil Scott-Heron to Carole King” to introduce Vampire Weekend.
A unique lineup of Vampire Weekend -- including Ezra Koenig, members of the Dirty Projectors and the University of Iowa’s Hawkapellas -- overcame the boomy acoustics of the room to captivate the crowd with their afro-beat infused pop songs. He delivered a heartfelt introduction for Sanders, saying, “This is a once in a lifetime candidate, we don’t see people like this all the time.”
Watch Sanders perform "This Land Is Your Land" with Vampire Weekend in the video above.
Sanders, looking physically exhausted but re-energized by the enthusiastic capacity crowd, delivered his usual stump speech with nearly every line getting deafening cheers from the student audience surrounding him. When Sanders stated “the black community and the white community do marijuana at about equal rates,” many students cheered, which got a laugh from Sanders, who said, “that wasn’t exactly my point.”
The passion and sincerity of the performers and speakers was reflected in the audience as well. University of Iowa student Anna Kramer said, “It feels less like choosing the lesser of two evils and more like picking somebody you actually want to be president.” About Hillary Clinton, Kramer stated, “I don’t trust her ... she’s changed her views too much ... I would be jazzed about a woman as a president, but I disagree with Hillary a little too much.”
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In 2008, Barack Obama connected with Iowa voters with his “Hope and Change” message, and generated enthusiasm and commitment. But Obama events seemed tame compared to this Sanders event. Obama is a gifted orator with great personal charisma -- Sanders is neither. What seemed to pump up the crowd was the things he said about income inequality, racism and climate change. In contrast with Donald Trump’s emphasis on “I,” Sanders spoke always in terms of “we.“
“This government belongs to all of us, not just a handful of billionaires,” Sanders stated to thunderous cheers.
It is unclear whether Sanders will be able to defeat Clinton in Iowa, or in the continuing primary race, but for one night, for the 3,500 people young and old, it felt possible. For one night at least, balding, hunched, 73-year-old Bernie Sanders did what few politicians ever do: he rocked.