Tom Morello proves protest music is alive and well |

Tom Morello proves protest music is alive and well

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” Protest music, as it was played Saturday night at Belly Up Aspen, still features acoustic guitars and the occasional between-song rap, from artists and activists, railing against societal injustice. But it also included revved-up electric guitar antics, dancing, a sense of humor, and a touching, and perfectly appropriate, song about one man’s grandmother.

Headlining Saturday night’s show was Tom Morello, best known for his effects-heavy guitar work in Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. But Morello, who studied political science at Harvard, has emerged in a new persona, the Nightwatchman. Wielding an acoustic bearing the inscription, “Whatever It Takes,” the Nightwatchman is influenced by such musicians as Billy Bragg and Woody Guthrie, whose politics are never very far from their art. There is also a dose of the folkier side of Bruce Springsteen, especially in the vocal grunts ” “Hunhh!” ” that punctuated most of Morello’s songs.

Morello was neither a lyricist nor singer in his past bands. But he shows no serious shortcomings now that he handles both departments. Songs like “The Fabled City” and “The King of Hell,” both played in the solo, acoustic set, reveal an ability to express his populist, anti-authoritarian streak in darkly shaded scraps of story and imagery.

Morello has even less of a problem working himself into an emotional lather. Expressing hopes that the first move for the Obama presidency would be the shuttering of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, he vented his anguish that the U.S. military sometimes blasted Rage Against the Machine’s music to cause sleep-deprivation torture among the prisoners.

But Morello found a glimmer of hope in the episode: Wouldn’t it be great, he mused, if a few Guantanamo cells could be preserved in the event President Bush and members of his administration were jailed in war crimes? In that event, said Morello with wicked glee, he would happily supply the torturous soundtrack.

Politics rarely left the stage, but Morello, making his Aspen debut, kept sanctimony at bay by displaying various modes of ranting. “Saint Isabelle,” he told the activist-leaning crowd, was about his late grandmother, whose disabilities kept her from ever traveling. But the touching chorus ” “I will always stand beside you/ Defend and mend you, sanctify you” ” could easily be heard as taking up sides with any of the world’s underprivileged. Morello also flashed a sense of humor, especially when he would refer to himself in the third person: “Yes, the Nightwatchman is also excited about Saturday night in Aspen.”

If Morello did show some restraint, it was on the guitar. The few extended guitar solos were mostly exercises in electronic wizardry, rather than six-string technique. (His electric guitar was expressive nonetheless, featuring the message, “Arm the Homeless.”) Even during the full-band set, he often opted for his acoustic guitar. Still, the three-piece band was solid, and the songs ” particularly a pair of covers, “Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” ” crackled with energy. Even if his guitar wasn’t screaming, Morello was.

Rapper Boots Riley, a member of the northern California group the Coup, could not have been a more ideal opening act. Riley’s set, too, featured acoustic guitar ” stylishly played by Carl Restivo, of Perry Farrell’s Satellite Party ” and plenty of sympathy for the underclass. Riley kept a serious face (and a serious afro) as he delivered his poetic raps, but his nonstop movement around the stage kept the entertainment factor high. Riley returned to the stage to join Morello’s electric set, with Morello announcing that the two have been involved in a “secret” project together, known as Streetsweeper.

Even the break between acts wasn’t free of social issues. Morello invited members of Iraq Veterans Against the War onstage to speak, and they told of signing up for the military, post-9/11, with the best intentions of doing some good in the world. When they expressed disillusionment with their experience ” an ill-advised war in Iraq, horrific treatment of the U.S. military’s own female troops by their supposed comrades ” several members of the audience tried to shout them down, leading to a brief confrontation in the crowd.

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