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Folk You , I Won’t Do What You Tell Me!
Tom Morello’s Nightwatchman brings chord changes we can believe in
The last time Tom Morello played Anaheim, he performed with bona-fide rock icon Bruce Springsteen, joining him onstage at the Honda Center this past April for “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” The song—written by Springsteen, but famously covered by Morello’s band Rage Against the Machine—is the type of track that inspired his current output as his folk alter-ego, the Nightwatchman.
“Playing with the Boss in Anaheim was definitely one of the highlights of my career, and it actually gave me the idea for the format of this tour in combining electric guitar-playing and exotic soloing with the solo acoustic performance,” says the guitarist. “It really allows me to do all the things I do as a musician on one night, on one stage.”
The inspiration is paying dividends. Morello says he’s pleased thus far with his current tour, supporting sophomore solo release The Fabled City.
“It’s a different kind of tour than any I’ve done,” he says. “The idea was to be one part Dylan and one part Hendrix, so there are the solo acoustic songs, but I’ve also brought my electric-guitar arsenal—my Marshall stack and my effects pedals. I’ve been able to play the wildest electric guitar that I’ve ever played onstage.”
Given this experimental bent, Morello’s lucky that the year isn’t 1965 and that he’s not playing the Bob Dylan-booing Newport Folk Festival. But Friday at the House of Blues, the politically radical musician will nonetheless be stomping through what he still views as a traditionally conservative county. (Memo to Morello: Obama only lost here by 2.6 percent.)
“I grew up in a town in Illinois where Democrats didn’t even run for office because it was so conservative,” relates Morello. “This music, these messages, and these searing guitar solos need to be heard now more than ever behind the Orange Curtain.”
This political defiance mixed with musical innovation should come as no surprise to followers of Morello’s career. His seminal work with Rage Against the Machine pioneered rap-rock, pairing it with strong anti-establishment sensibilities. As a solo artist, the Nightwatchman once more attempts to unify sounds and subversion.
Whereas “three chords and the truth” was how Morello defined his debut album, One Man Revolution, the arrangements on The Fabled City are more fleshed-out. The new song “Whatever It Takes” best exemplifies this new approach.
“While it’s played on a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, it’s run through some of my electric effects pedals to give it that grinding riff,” Morello says. “In the solo section, I tried to approximate some of my crazier electric-guitar work with an acoustic guitar and harmonica.”
Morello is equally pensive in his rabble-rousing lyrics, crooning with a deep baritone imbued with enough bass to shake up the system. He sings justice jams aimed at political foes in songs such as “Midnight In the City of Destruction,” which partly depicts the struggle to save the South Central Farm in Los Angeles. Another verse channels the indignation of a Hurricane Katrina survivor with the words “I pray that God himself will come and drown the president/If the levees break again.”
But the Bush administration is nearly over, and Morello actually has a lot in common with our president-elect. They are both Harvard-educated and have Kenyan fathers. Given our newfound national optimism, will the Nightwatchman still be singing songs of protest next year?
“Definitely yes,” Morello emphatically responds. “In my personal history, when I was 13, I was going to school one day, and the Ku Klux Klan put a noose in my family’s garage,” he recalls. “I never thought I’d live to see the day when the United States of America would elect an African-American to the highest office in the land. That, even symbolically, is a huge step toward civilization.
“On the other hand, we’ve had plenty of Democratic administrations that have committed economic crimes at home and war crimes abroad, so those of us who believe in human rights, social and economic justice, and peace need to struggle as hard as ever to shape the world into one we would like to see.”
He even issues a warning to the powers-that-will-be.
“The Nightwatchman will not be writing an album’s worth of love songs the next time around,” Morello says, “and will be continuing to swing that hammer for social justice as hard as he can!”