Tom Morello: A soundtrack to American revolution?

Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello stopped by Seattle this week on a tour for his new solo project, The Nightwatchman. But in this latest iteration of his career, Morello has taken on an unexpected new role -- acoustic revolutionary.

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Tom Morello onstage at The Crocodile with fans.

Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello stopped by Seattle this week on a tour for his new solo project, The Nightwatchman. But in this latest iteration of his career, Morello has taken on an unexpected new role -- acoustic revolutionary.

“I’m the Nightwatchman and this is a one-man revolution,” sang Tom Morello at his October 18th show at The Crocodile. 

Whether you turn on the news or visit Occupy Seattle protests, it seems that revolution is on a lot of minds these days. But what sometimes seems to be missing is a soundtrack. There's a long history of musicians putting the people’s voices to music — Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Neil Young, The Clash, and Bruce Springsteen. If we need someone to write the score for today’s zeitgeist, nominate Tom Morello as The Nightwatchman.

Morello is best known as the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, a thunderous rock band beloved for its political messages as well as making brains reverberate from bass. The Nightwatchman is Morello’s alter ego and acoustic, solo project formed in 2003. While Rage blasted its message through speakers, Morello is more restrained as The Nightwatchman. His messages though, remain loud and clear.

Seattle was the first West Coast stop on a tour to support The Nightwatchman’s fourth studio album, “World Wide Rebel Songs,” released in August. Most of the set list was from the recent album, with a few older tracks and covers including Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and an uncensored version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Morello began with a new song, “It Begins Tonight,” which set the tone for the night. The album versions of most songs he played are distinctly fuller and tend towards a Rage Against the Machine sound, thanks to an aggressive backing band. Carl Restivo, from The Freedom Fighters Orchestra which plays on the album, backed Morello on a handful of songs, but on this tour, Morello played most songs on acoustic guitar. w save for a few electric interludes.

That’s not to say he doesn’t play with ferocity.  “On stage with a borrowed angel’s sword, and a crossword puzzle of stolen chords, I’m alive but those I love are gone, let’s move tonight and take the throne...It begins tonight,” he sang. He punctuated these fierce lyrics with a howl, throwing his whole body into his guitar-playing.

Morello followed with a handful of mellower songs, including “Branding Iron,” which he played so quietly that he asked for complete silence. The crowd complied, of course. A bit ironic given the evening’s talk of challenging authority, but, hey, it’s a rock star and he asked politely, right?

The crowd was a bit tentative towards the beginning — probably based on hardcore Rage fans waiting for Morello to pump up the volume. But Morello knew what they wanted, wisely switching to electric guitar halfway through “Branding Iron” and letting loose. It was the first time the crowd jumped to their feet and cheered. Once established, that love connection lasted for the rest of the night.

“Ben Harper and I wanted to write a song that righted wrongs, dispelled evil spirits and would make the whole world right. Then we realized we couldn’t do it, so we wrote this song instead,” chuckled Morello as he introduced “Save The Hammer For The Man.” Among his virtues is Morello's ability to poke fun at himself; an attitude that saves him from self-righteous preening.  

A staunch advocate of unions, Morello spent a great deal of time in Madison, Wisconsin, this year supporting laborers during their union struggles. During the show, he pointedly mentioned that the acoustic guitar he played, named Black Spartacus, was “100 percent union-made in the U.S.A.” Part of the evening’s proceeds were dedicated to the America Votes Labor Fund.

“Seattle is one of my favorite cities in part because it is a union town,” he said. Whether it is true or not, the comment both endeared him to the crowd and made us Seattleites feel momentarily virtuous simply by showing up. 

As expected, Morello visited the Occupy Seattle protest the afternoon before the show. In recent weeks, he has personally protested and played at Occupy Wall Street and Occupy L.A.

“I was kind of skeptical at first when I heard about it, like, what’s all this about?” he admitted. “Now I’m all in, though.” He dedicated “The Road I Must Travel” to the Seattle protesters.  

Morello is a master at balancing political rhetoric and music. As he neared the night’s end, he very deliberately gave the audience what they wanted.

“I know that some of the guys in the front are kind of unsure about all these acoustic, folk-type songs,” he laughed before launching into “Ghost of Tom Joad” on the electric guitar. His performance of the Springsteen classic was a clear justification of Rolling Stone's award — the magazine named him one of the “100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time.” Morello executed with mind-blowing technical skill, as well as dramatic flair. He even played one riff with his mouth.  

“The Nightwatchman is a little bit of what you want and a lot of what you need,” he told fans.  

In a moment of “we’re-all-in-this-together” sentiment, Morello invited the sold-out crowd to join him on stage for his second-to-last encore, “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. Most everyone knows the chorus from elementary school sing-a-longs, but Morello played the full version, which included “subversive” verses that have widely been omitted.

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

As the audience happily stood next to Morello, crowding him to the point that he asked for some room to actually play, it was probably the happiest, pseudo-“protest” happening in Seattle. It’s hard to say how much of Morello’s call to action will be remembered. He seems okay, though, with even momentarily inspiring people, within the safe confines of a concert, to think about world issues.

“There are a lot of issues to solve, but it can wait until tomorrow. Tonight we’re just gonna have a good, mother*** time!” he yelled. 

Maybe that’s the point. Aren’t we all fighting for some version of that anyway?


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