Monday, December 7, 2009

The Activist's Gang

After all the goings on in the world last week (upping the war in Afghanistan, the on-going health care debate, "Capitalism: A Love Story" not being on the Oscar short list, etc ..) I really needed a Nightwatchman show, mainly to be assured that some people still care - and still fight - for what's right. Well, just in time, I get word that Tom Morello and Shooter Jennings are going to do a benefit show for the WTF?! Festival at The Actor's Gang on Saturday. Perfect.

The Actor's Gang was founded by actor/artistic director, Tim Robbins, who is also a friend and fellow activist of Tom's. Basically, guys who walk the walk. The WTF Festival was thought up when told they shouldn't produce theater as it was too expensive in this economy ... hence WTF?!?! So they gathered together a whole bunch of talented friends and artists to do shows to raise money so they COULD produce theater in months to come ... and Tom Morello/The Nightwatchman signed up for the cause.

The Ivy Substation on Venice Boulevard in Culver City is the Actor's Gang home, and what a great space it is! All brick and cool, with a big patio out back to celebrate before and after performances. It's on the National Register of Historic Places, and it's so good to be in a building like this, and see it being put to great use. I'd never been to a Nightwatchman show where there was stadium (or any, really) seating, so wondered how this would be.

It would be great! A lot of Tom's songs are actually pretty dark and spooky acoustic, so a theater environment lends a certain gravitas to what's already there. If you ignored a few over-served patrons, that is. I heard a clearly drunk girl behind me say, "Oh, look! There's Bob Roberts!" Yep. There he was, Bob Roberts himself, all involved with helping people get seated, very hands on. Then he took the stage and did the standard, turn off your cell phones speech, then stopped himself, and said, "Who really needs to take a phone call during Tom Morello?" Exactly. With that, he introduced, "An amazing musician and activist, Tom Morello!"

The Nightwatchman simply said, "Good Evening", and launched right into "Flesh Shapes The Day". He seemed more aggro than normal, extra fired up. And it's catchy. People cheered for the "Si Se Puede!" part, which warmed my heart. We're all one, right? Then, still no talking, and he went right into a new one, "Headlights On The Mountain", which was very story-telling style. You could picture the whole situation, "Headlights on the mountain, ghosts in the night ... something ain't right ..." It kind of reminded me of (Grammy nominated!) Steve Earle (but then I just saw Tom play with Steve a month ago, so ...). It's been a while since The Nightwatchman's first album, so I'm not sure if "One Man Revolution" is entirely accurate anymore. With all the shows he's done, he's recruited a whole lot more to his revolution. Everyone in this place, for sure. When he sang, "On the streets of Culver City, they know my name ... maybe Brothers and Sisters, we're one and the same", he, in that one sentence, got the crowd fired up for the rest of the night. It was almost strange ... from polite listening to fully riled up, like that {Snap!}. To which he replied, "Fuck yeah!"

Perhaps feeling that new spark, Tom ordered up a Jameson, "or this Holiday Gala is going to stop prematurely." The Jameson soon arrived, and got its own applause. It only fired him up more, just in time for "Maximum Firepower". This has always been one of my favorites, as nearly every line bites you with truth. "The skin you're in makes choices for you." "You don't gotta be loud, Son, to be heavy as shit." Showing his Guthrie side with, "This machine here, well, it kills fascists too." And my favorite - and the crowd's - "If you take a step towards freedom, it'll take two steps towards you." See what I mean? Badass truths.

Tom next spoke about his time spent in New Orleans, and the feeling of irredeemable loss that permeates the air there - still. "Midnight In The City Of Destruction" is his somber requiem for all that was lost in the absolute crime of Katrina's handling. It's downright eerie - and should be.

Tom's "day job" is melting peoples' faces off with his guitar and Rage Against The Machine. He regaled the crowd with a story about them playing the first Lalapalooza, and they were really angry about the PMRC, and their attempts to censor their music. So the guys decided to stage a protest - an entirely nude protest. They each painted a P-M-R-C on themselves and put black duct tape over their mouths, took the stage in front of 40,000 people and simply stood there (except for the least endowed member of the band - no names - who, as Tom put it, "bust a nut" during the protest, but could not finish, probably due to lack of concentration). The crowd went wild for the first five minutes or so, but then started to wonder where their rock was, and soon the Rage guys started getting pelted with quarters. Ouch. To avoid arrest, they all finally took off running, and Tom wound up, naked but for the "P" on his chest, on Fishbone's bus. They all found it completely normal, and they watched the entire "Star Wars" movie like that. Then the papers heard about it, and Rage blew up to become the behemoth you know today. And you don't really hear about the PMRC at all anymore, do you? Sometimes there IS justice.

Tom brought out his stompbox for "The Fabled City". Which started the audience stomping, right on through that one, "St. Isabelle" (with Tom on his big Irish War drum, and dedicated to Liam Clancy, who died the day before), and "House Gone Up In Flames". It's always amazing to me that Tom can get a room so rowdy, and then get them to zip it one moment later. Like he did for his Mother Mary's (in the house!) favorite Nightwatchman tune. He introduced it as such, and said, "All the good parts of me come from her. And Mary just became a Grandmother." Yes, there is a baby boy Morello, folks! Rhoads! This was met with HUGE applause, which Tom gave thanks for, and then laid his gorgeous "The Garden Of Gethsemane" on everyone. It was so quiet, he didn't even use his mic at the end. So, so hauntingly pretty.

Then it was time for what Tom said will likely be the title track of the next Nightwatchman album, "Dogs Of Tijuana". There was a definite Mexican sound to the guitar on this one, that seemed to be a straight up warning. "The world will not end in fire, it will not end in ice, it'll end when we arrive." Passionate and heavy, once again, you will want this album in your holster. About to start a new jam, Tom put on his harmonica rack, blew on it, and then said, "OK, I'm not afraid to admit I picked up the wrong harmonica. Aside from the people on my guest list, you people paid good money and deserve the right harmonica. Carol Gronner, put that in your review." (So there you go. But it was no big deal).

But "Whatever It Takes" WAS a big deal, because Tom (and his Whatever It Takes acoustic) was super into it, and blew the (correct) harmonica like a madman. The place erupted after that, and Tom told them there was some "new Union-made merch in the front, as well as Nightwatchman songbooks for the holidays, so kids can strum along to all these songs of bitterness and revenge." Ha! Jason Snyder and Bruce Springsteen share a favorite Nightwatchman song, and it was dedicated to them, and will most likely be on the next album at their urging - "Branding Iron". That was up next - and it means business. The crowd LOVED it. Tom smiled and said, "I'm the Nightwatchman, it's been a pleasure to serve you. I'd like to bring up my good friend, Shooter Jennings."

Shooter took the stage, Tom left, and Shooter went right into an Outlaw Country medley of Willie Nelson's "Walkin'", Kris Kristofferson's "Year 2003 Minus 25", and his Dad's "I've Always Been Crazy". Shooter has the perfect whiskey and cigarettes voice for those classics, but makes them all his own, and modern, while he's at it. I've known Shooter a long time, since his L.A. Rock band, Stargunn, days, and he just seems more comfortable in his skin playing this more modern country vibe. It's great to hear. "I'm gonna play a couple of misogynistic songs, by accident, but it's these guys' lives", was the way he introduced "Loving Country" by Charlie Robison, and "Isis" by Bob Dylan. Again, classics made new.

Shooter has a darling baby girl, Alabama, and he sat down at the piano and said, "The things I've learned since she was born are more important than anything ever in my life. I play this one for her." And he played "The Rainbow Connection", so sweet and touchingly, that he really should record it. Outlaw Country Kids! I love it. And I love Shooter's piano playing ... he's really very good, and it was showcased beautifully on a song off his upcoming new album (Black Ribbons! March, 2010!) called, "All Of This Could Have Been Yours". It's so good. Shooter was going for it, pounding the keys and screaming the lyrics so hard that spontaneous cheers broke out, like people just had to get emotion out as the song built to its crescendo. Phew.

David Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair" was next, and was so Shooter that at first I thought it was his song. He was banging on the piano and wailing (Waylon?), when suddenly - dramatically - Tom came back on stage, picked up his electric ("ohhHHH, Shit!" murmured the gent behind me) guitar ... and stood there waiting. Until finally Shooter looked up, Tom said, "It's time?" and time it was. Time for RIPPING apart a guitar/piano duet with Shooter that left the room breathless. ( Really. I heard actual gasping). Tom told a quick story about sitting around at his house with Shooter, and laughing that, "Now days the only half naked underage people running around are our children ... we've come a long way." Then another epic duet, on Audioslave's, "I Am The Highway". I have to say, I prefer Shooter's version to the original, because you can actually picture him on the road, meaning it. And Tom's twangy guitar solo part is always epic. One more duet, that Shooter sings on Tom's The Fabled City album too, "Iron Wheel". Those two songs back to back are a great one, two punch.

But the KNOCKOUT punch was "The Ghost Of Tom Joad". Tom's guitar solo backing up Springsteen on this one blew apart the recent Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Anniversary Concert (Youtube it - Egads!), and did the same here in this little theater. Shooter and Tom took turns on verses, and harmonized the chorus beautifully, until it was time for the BLISTERING guitar mania. It's hard to put a Morello guitar solo in words - they're eye-popping and usually render you mute. When the teeth playing began, people found their voices to scream, jumped to their feet, and stayed there long after the last chord died out. A loooong Standing O! It truly was that exciting.

But not quite all. The Nightwatchman always ends his shows with "This Land Is Your Land", and tonight was no different. He dedicated it to the soldiers of IVAW, soldiers who stand UP against war, and who fight for This land, our land. Tom and Shooter had to quick sort out who was taking what verse ("Not only do you see the music played, you see it get MADE."), and then they lit up the entire room, with all censored lyrics restored. Tom always gets everyone to sing along, jump along, FEEL along with him ... "From Nightwatchmothers to Oscar winners, from the sound guy to all my friends on the list, JUMP FOR PEACE!!!" So we did.

"Because if you want to end wars, or get a universal health care plan, or make the gap between rich and poor disappear, you've gotta do something about it!" That's what Tom said before the entire stadium-seated theater goers jumped up into the rafters and back. And he's right.

'Tis the season ... not just for holiday merriment, but also for end of the year reflection, new beginnings, and new goals. Not just for ourselves, but for the world. Whatever you want changed, it starts with you. It's great to go to a show and yell for peace and justice, but that's pretty easy. Think about what you can DO. And then do it. Or as Tom (and Studs Terkel before him) puts it, "Take it easy, but take it!"

Have a HAPPY Holiday ... but as Einstein said, "Remember your humanity and forget the rest."

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm........ . . . . Uh, my e-mail and facebook both get me messages daily and I need Morello photos in my Portfolio. I have a new phone and would love to shoot one of these events sometime.

    -Studs Terkel