This year has been heavy metal for everyone, and sometimes you need a night of some good, hard heavy metal ... and EDM, and folk, and classic rock, and ... and ... everything else that you will get out of Tom Morello's Atlas Underground show. WOW. I was so happy to have my CA friends here in MN that they could have played the ABC's (and they would have made that sound cool too!), but the show is really something else ... and I'll say it again ... WOW. The Varsity Theater has some stories to tell after Morello kicked off the first date of his new tour there last night in support of the groundbreaking Atlas Underground, the first solo album released under his own name.
I'm pretty sure the last time Morello and I were both in Minneapolis at the same time was when Rage Against The Machine played here in opposition of the 2008 RNC Convention that was happening in St. Paul. That one was nuts, with police in riot gear at one show, and the electricity getting pulled at another, forcing the band to take to the crowd with bullhorns. Last night also ended up in the best kind of bedlam ... but I'm getting ahead of myself. The evening opened with a set by Bones UK, an all female hard rock band from Camden Town, London ("It's naughty. It's where vampires go to drink whiskey!" - lead vocalist Rosie Bones). I didn't get to make their whole set, because parking in Dinkytown is a joke, but was impressed with what I did catch.
The ladies lit into a Bowie cover, "I'm Afraid Of Americans" as I arrived, and Bones added when introducing the tune, "Well, I'm afraid of ONE American in particular" ... and no one had to guess who. That's when I got why Morello chose this band to open his tour. She told a story about playing a great gig in London, when a guy came up and told them they were great, but they'd never be as good as a dude band, because "Girls can't play guitar". Guitarist Carmen Vandenberg proceeded to directly dispel that ridiculous myth, blazing through their single, "Pretty Waste" for an already packed to the rafters crowd. Drummer Heavy kept it heavy, and the Bones Uk won some new fans (mostly male) in Minneapolis last night. Including me (one of maybe 10 females).
The crew came out to set up for Morello's set, and you could feel the anticipation building in the room. I've seen Morello play countless times - and it's still exciting every time - but for the mostly dudes gathered there at The Varsity, they were getting ready to go OFF for their guitar hero, that in my eavesdropping I learned was the first time for many. That might be because Atlas Underground features collaborations with a super-diverse line-up of artists, with everyone from Bassnectar to Gary Clark, Jr. ... Steve Aoki to Marcus Mumford ... Knife Party to GZA, RZA, and Big Boi! I mean ... !
After quite a while of setting up, the lights went out and heavy videos began playing on the screen in front. Black and white images of immigrants in lines and cages, prisoners in jails, and homeless Army vets combined to let you know exactly where we're at as a country. Then a voiceover with the deep distortion of a kidnapper and a hooded silhouette appeared on the screen, saying, "This is a communiqué from the Atlas Underground ..." that went on to say that on New Year's Eve, we're taking it ALL (I asked Morello about this after and he said that "rebellion is a way of re-setting the clock to 0:00 and starting over ... Let fire be your deliverance!") and then suddenly a hoopla began in the crowd. I was in the photo pit, so the ruckus was behind me, and when I turned around, there was Morello smack dab in the middle of the crowd, breaking into his surprisingly EDM Gary Clark, Jr. collab, "Where It's At Ain't What It Is"! The happy and surprised faces said it all ... this night was going to be something special.
Videos played while Morello made his way back to the real stage, dressed in red bandana, shades, Madiba hat, and an Abraham Lincoln T-shirt. The video concluded with Morello's inspiration of a mother, Mary Morello, saying to camera, "Freedom means fighting for your rights ... And it also means rock and roll!" I love her ... and she's right. A graphic reading "Nazi Lives Don't Matter" was met with shouts of solidarity, and Morello blazed through "Battle Sirens" (the Knife Party collab). Musical chameleon, Carl Restivo, and awesome drummer, Eric Gardner, joined Morello for the visual and musical barrage that never let up the whole night. Laptops took the place of the collaborators (who weren't present), with their recorded vocals and presence in the excellent videos bringing them there into the room with us. All of the videos were designed by Sean Evans, and served to complete the show that Morello himself describes as "One part Marshall stack guitar madness, and one part bassdrop meltdown", with all of the trappings you would expect from a Rock/EDM show (though the videos made it hard to shoot photos, the experience is meant to be immersive and in the moment, not seen through your phone).
"Rabbit's Revenge"was a ROCKER - with a point. This collaboration with Killer Mike, Bassnectar, and Big Boi hits all the way home - such as our home is these days - with kids being murdered by cops and all the other myriad problems we're all dealing with. Messages on the screen said things like "Don't Mourn, Organize!" and "Take one step towards freedom, and it will take two steps towards you!" Up close in the photo pit, you can really see Morello bending his notes, and it's something to behold. The entire place was loving it, and vocally letting the band know it. A pick up in the palm solo led to a little Rage riff that led to the Audioslave tune, "Like A Stone" with recorded Chris Cornell vocals. The crowd sang along to every note, and it had more meaning than other times I've heard it sung along to - because now we all know we don't have Cornell anymore. It's become a much more wistful song to me ... and I think to everyone.
Another Gary Clark, Jr. collaboration was next, and "Can't Stop The Bleeding" had everyone clapping along in double time, and featured yet another show-stopping guitar solo from Morello - which is really what everyone is there for. Morello then took it acoustic with a Nightwatchman song, "Flesh Shapes The Day" on his "Whatever It Takes" guitar. "Clap your hands, Minneapolis!", shouted Morello - and we did. "Alright, stop clapping!", commanded Morello - and we did. "Fuck, yeah!", exulted Morello at the end, and everyone in there said that too.
"Save The Hammer For The Man" found Carl Restivo filling in on the Ben Harper part, and it was gorgeous with the harmonies, and also with the flamenco-style guitar solo Morello threw in there. Morello here took a moment to greet the room, saying, "Thank you all for coming, I'm happy to be back in the city I've played so many great shows in, then went into deeper Minnesota tracks for his shout-outs than the usual Prince, Dylan, and First Avenue. Instead, Morello tipped his Madiba hat to the Walker Art Center, Kirby Puckett (!), and Babes In Toyland (who Morello's high school friend Maureen Herman played bass for). Awesome.
There was 45 seconds of tuning, which for a Morello show means that time has to be filled with the "loudest 45 seconds in the history of this club!" - and I think it was probably the loudest, because my ears are still ringing a little bit. The next song was dedicated to Chris Cornell and our "Moments of doubt", and Morello asked for absolute silence for "The Garden Of Gethsemane" - and he got it. I didn't even hear anyone breathing. The reverence for Cornell - and for the beauty of the song - kept the previously rowdy crowd perfectly rapt, so much so that Morello didn't even use the mic. Sublime.
He had promised to reward the silence with "Heavy metal bangers the rest of the way", and that's exactly what he gave us next. "How Long" featuring Tim McIlrath from Rise Against and Steve Aoki got people hyped out of their faces, and the video played after featured Morello's sons and their friends asking questions, and making statements, ending with "I wish he'd just shut up and play guitar!" Morello gets that all the time (and I've had several online fights defending him from that garbage), and if people don't get by now that this man has some real real things to say - AND walks that talk every day - then we really can't help them. He is always going to speak truth to power, so you'd better get used to it.
So, he DID come back out and play guitar, for a shredding, ridiculous version of Springsteen's "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" that Morello has now very much made his own. It's always a true highlight, and always gives me the chills. The teeth solo gets 'em every time, and last night was no different. The fans were SO into it ... but then it got REALLY nuts. "Are we in this together, People?!", asked Morello and the People shouted in the affirmative. "Well, then why am I up on the stage without you? Please join me on the stage!" OK. This was about as close as I've ever come to being trampled (aside from one very heavy Primus set at Lollapalooza), as the super-fans all pressed toward the stage, jumping barriers, pushing over people, doing whatever they could to get up there. Morello kept asking for more people, and the security dudes were stressing. While they were scrambling up there, Morello issued the warning that people not mess with his stuff or put a phone in his face, as he's been known to throw them. And it's been deserved. There were finally enough people up there for Morello's liking for him to say, "OK, let's finish the night with an old gospel song!" - which was Rage's "Killing In The Name"! It was solid pandemonium in there, as everyone shouted in unison "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!" with middle fingers all the way raised. It was chaos. It was cathartic. It was necessary. It was these times, defined in a song.
"Minneapolis, put the house lights up!" They did, and the room was illuminated with the happy faces of the people recognizing that they have the power - so we sang one more. John Lennon's "Power to the People" had everyone jumping up and down together, in raucous solidarity.
The ad for the show calls The Atlas Underground Live Experience "The last big event before we all go to jail." I asked Morello what he meant by this, and he explained that the impending police state, with facial recognition and all that, and the looming situation of Trump refusing to leave office should lead to "Hong Kong style riots in Times Square" ... where we would all go to jail. Because we're standing up for what's right, and up TO what's wrong. If you can be made to feel that way from attending a rock show, I'm sure glad that Morello refuses to ever just shut up and play guitar. We need him now, more than ever. And we need each other ... because we truly really absolutely do have the power - and it's time to use it.
Please do not miss your shot to experience The Atlas Underground Live show, because I want you to feel this way too. We need you. Thanks to Tom Morello, for always asking us to think, and for giving us the inspiration to do something with those thoughts. Like fighting the powers that be.
The Atlas Underground Live Experience is on tour across America now. GO!
*I miss Paul Gronner Photography!