Eclectic Musical Activist Cadre Demands: “Tell Us the Truth!”


“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 America‘s corporate media, have responded: “let us be the judge!”


On November 7, 2003, in Madison, Wisconsin, British folk rocker Billy Bragg, hip-hop artist Boots Riley of The Coup, Lester Chambers of the Chambers Brothers, and Tom Morello lead guitarist for rock super-group Audioslave and the now defunct Rage Against the Machine (joined for select gigs by country/folk artist Steve Earle, singer-songwriter Jill Sobule, keyboardist Mike Mills of REM and actress/comedienne Janeane Garofalo as the emcee) kicked off the “Tell Us the Truth Tour.” A month-long journey to raise awareness of, and fight against, media consolidation and unjust international trade practices, the “Tell Us the Truth Tour” has lofty aims and a powerful message. As Morello, who performs on the tour as “The Nightwatchman,” puts it, “Media consolidation needs smashing and globalization needs unmasking.”

The musical activists kicked off their tour at a fitting venue, the National Conference on Media Reform in Madison, Wisconsin. There, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney offered some opening remarks which, in of itself, bespoke the very different partnerships that differentiate the “Tell Us the Truth Tour” from other concert series. While most tours these days are awash in corporate sponsorship, often under the excuse of keeping ticket prices low for the benefit of the fans, you won’t find Detroit auto manufacturers, fast-food giants or telecommunications mega-corporations involved with “Tell Us the Truth.” Somehow, though, ticket prices are still in the normal range ($25 for the New York City show). Instead of corporate giants, the “Tell Us the Truth Tour” is sponsored by the AFL-CIO, the Axis of Justice (a non-profit group founded by Morello and Serj Tankian of the rock group System of a Down to “bring together musicians, fans of music, and grassroots political organizations to fight for social justice”) and the nonpartisan, citizens’ lobbying group, Common Cause, among others. The tour is also partnered with over 20 separate organizations such as Jobs With Justice and the Florida Fair Trade Coalition. Obviously, the “Tell Us the Truth” is radically different type of concert series with artists who are anything but apolitical.
The tour barn-stormed through
New York, on November 23, 2003 playing at the historic Greenwich Village landmark, Webster Hall. There, at the site of many leftist gatherings during the early twentieth century, Garofolo, Earle, Riley, Morello, Sobule, Chambers and Bragg were on hand to carry on the radical tradition of the “Jewel of the Village.”


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 Million Ways To Kill A C.E.O” and “Wear Clean Drawers.”

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 Iraq, the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, political action, media localism and practical means of affecting change. No revolutionary rhetoric, just advice tailor-made for a not overly-rebellious crowd. The British folk-rocker also showed a tremendously nuanced understanding of the American political system and mass media that would shame even many “informed” residents of the U.S. of A in regard to their own country, let alone what they could tell you about the situation in the United Kingdom.

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 America‘s increasingly repressive atmosphere, preaching to the choir is now a required activity — if only to maintain a sense of hope and to provide a friendly environment where leftist thought isn’t met with derision or distain. Thankfully, the cause of providing such an environment has been taken up by a group of smart and talented musicians. The show may have even a opened a few new minds, too. Tom Morello, has said “I learned more about U.S. involvement in El Salvador from The Clash than I ever did from Tom Brokaw.” On this night, Billy Bragg may have opened a few half-closed eyes to media consolidation, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations, or corporate globalization, fulfilling the tour’s goal of “raising a ruckus for media diversity, fair trade and democracy.” You can’t ask much more from a concert.

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 America, but the world, is at stake. It would certainly be nice to have some top-notch musical accompaniment.

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