“When presidents and politicians lie, it is the job of the press to expose and challenge those lies. When the press fails, the lies become laws,”
– The Nightwatchman (Tom Morello)
In 1992′s A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson’s crusty, tough-as-nails Marine Colonel, Nathan R. Jessup, being told “I want the truth!” while seated on the witness stand in a military courtroom roars back, “You can’t handle the truth!” Recently a progressive cadre of eclectic musicians, having been similarly admonished by
The musical activists kicked off their tour at a fitting venue, the National Conference on Media Reform in
The tour barn-stormed through
The event was kicked off with a group jam session followed by solo sets from each of the artists. The vibe of show the was laid back, no heavy rhetoric or revolutionary harangues, but a constant drumbeat of progressive messages within the music, punctuated by the between-the-sets comedy of Garofalo whose comments were largely unrehearsed (she frequently consulted a yellow piece of notepaper for quips), but fresh and funny. They were also brief. With a bare bones stage, no set major changes whatsoever, it took only a quick adjustment of equipment between acts which kept the production tight and the show moving.
Those on hand to see Morello thrash ala his Rage Against the Machine days were to be disappointed — though they should have know that this wasn’t the rock-rap RATM guitarist they were seeing, but instead the all-acoustic, Dylan-esque, “Nightwatchman.” Taking the multiple creative risks of eschewing his mind-blowing, turntable-imitating electric guitar solos, penning his own (largely apocalyptic) songs and putting himself in front of the mic (singing mostly in a Johnny Cash-like low register), the folked-out Morello showed promise as both a lyricist and vocalist who will no doubt hone his skills as he continues to perform as “the Nightwatchman.”
While a later addition to the Tell Us the Truth tour, Jill Sobule turned in a performance that was exceptional. Her quirky, tongue-in-cheek lyrics about “The Gay Agenda” or a “War Correspondent in Love” and self-effacing humor were as refreshing as her rapport with the crowd was strong. “Strong” is also an apt word to describe genre-smashing rocker-folker-country, singer-songwriter Steve Earle’s set. A fine voice, masterful guitar and mandolin playing and poignant lyrics made for a powerful showing. Injecting some hip-hop into the concert, Boots Riley’s performance was absolutely incredible. Riley said he wanted his set to be “funky,” at least as funky as a small acoustic backing-band would allow. He and his accompanists did not disappoint and got the crowd moving with The Coup’s signature songs “5
One of Riley’s accompanists, on backup vocals and tambourine, was rhythm and blues and rock legend, Lester Chambers. If for no other reason, you’ll remember Lester’s voice from the Chambers Brothers’ hit “Time Has Come Today.” By my ear, Lester’s voice sounds just as powerful, pliant and pleasing as it did back in 1968. His vocal range was excellent, not just for a man in his 60s, but for any singer on tour today. It was simply a treat to hear him belt out the blues.
Billy Bragg was, perhaps, the most overtly political of all the acts to take the stage. Between such powerful crowd favorites as “The World Turned Upside Down” and “NPWA” (No Power Without Accountability), an even-handed Bragg spoke about the war in
Having once had the pleasure of listening to Bragg as played in the middle of a street protest, it didn’t surprise me when Morello told the crowd that just days before the Webster Hall show, the Tell Us the Truth folks had been out in the street at the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) protests in Miami and had, like so many other activists, been tear-gassed. The performers, however, showed no ill-effects from the chemical assault. In fact, they seemed downright joyous and hopeful throughout the entire show but at no time more than the concert’s finale — a rousing version of the soulful standard, “People Get Ready” followed by an encore performance of the Chamber Brothers “Time Has Come Today.” The end-of-the-show jam session showcased the talents and passion of all the artists, allowing Chambers to belt out his signature song, with help from the others, with rap-interludes from Riley who took the song to a new musical and lyrical level.
I walked out of Webster Hall, once a favorite haunt of anarchist Emma Goldman, feeling a bit more hopeful than when I entered. If nothing, the Tell Us the Truth tour boosted spirits and rallied the “troops.” In
While the “Tell Us the Truth Tour” ends on November 24th, one hopes that this musical troupe, or another like it, will reconstitute for future dates. The next year promises to be a huge one for “the Movement.” With a presidential election looming in 2004 the fate of, not only