Review by James Eliopulos
Photographs by Brian Michaels
Wednesday night at the Troubadour on Santa Monica Blvd Tom Morello, performing as The Nightwatchman with his backing band Maximum Firepower alternated between amplified and acoustic music as he delivered an energetic, crowd pleasing, two-hour set that ranged from quiet, bitter lamentations about the plight of the unemployed and the working poor to guitar-as-flamethrower torching of the corporate-military poverty making machine.
Drawing on material from songwriters that included Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen (whom he had joined onstage the night before in Anaheim), as well as his own growing body of first rate work, perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was just how well his own compositions stand up to and blend in with some of the great American folk and protest songs written over the past century. Not that Morello is a novice, just that his renown was earned primarily as an extremely imaginative and creative big volume, big distortion guitarist giving musical context and expression to the anger and suffering conveyed in Zak de la Rocha’s vocals in their band Rage Against the Machine.
Morello is a complex and fascinating artist. As the Nightwatchman he writes and performs songs that convey an economist/historians knowledge about current socio-political trends and a striking laborer or field workers first hand experience of some of life’s less pleasant realities. Playing and singing his own songs, many of them delivered using a nylon strung acoustic guitar, it becomes clear that his passion as expressed in his work with RATM isn’t confined to metallic vibrations captured by pick-ups and let loose through Marshall amps. He has an articulate writing style that thoughtfully and authentically captures the common man or woman’s experience – from a poor mothers love for a hungry child to a factory or mineworkers building frustration at the exploitation of his youth, health and strength in environments where machines are cared for better than employees.
If you are familiar with Rage one of the first things you notice is the difference between Morello’s vocal style and that of Zak de la Rocha. It doesn’t take long to realize that both are necessary – and that Morello’s approach, musically, lyrically and vocally will reach audiences that Rage could not. Sometimes life’s pain and hardship are best expressed through strident anger and chest pounding volume. Sometimes a quieter voice over major chords played on nylon strings works better. Instead of a delivery that comes from someplace near ‘Shut the fuck up and listen to me’, Morello uses a storyteller’s style that makes the listener want to lean in, to feel and process the lyrical imagery in a way that remains open to subtlety and nuance.
For an audience that included longshoremen, healthcare workers, public employees, students and as beautiful and wide an economic, social and racial mix as I have seen in a small LA music venue in a long, long time Wednesday’s performance delivered the kind of revolutionary message that will last beyond the fading of the feedback. In the end, if this country is going to become the place of economic and social justice it’s founders and greatest leaders have always dreamed it could become – it will be through thought and dialog. Not yelling matches, but conversations. And the Nightwatchman knows just what we should be talking about.