Tom Morello at the Troubadour: the Nightwatchman rages on
December 8, 2012 by Bill Palmer
by Bill Palmer
Tom Morello took the stage at the tiny Troubadour last night for a solo show which, while sharing much of the political and social tenets of his band Rage Against The Machine, was an almost complete musical departure. The guitar virtuoso has been making solo albums of activist folk music under the name The Nightwatchman, handling his own vocals with a baritone singing voice many casual Rage fans probably never knew existed, and those songs made up the bulk of the night’s set – along with covers of songs from Dylan, Springsteen, and Arlo Guthrie.
There were times when Morello, backed by a full rock band, reached for his iconic “Arm The Homeless” electric guitar and reminded the packed crowd of the myriad of tricks up his sleeve: running his fingers up the neck of the guitar. Switching between holding the fretboard from the top and the bottom between each note. And at one point playing the guitar with his mouth. But several songs were just him, playing acoustic, and offering plaintive vocals which seemed to plead for people to think about how to improve the world rather than overtly insisting.
In between songs, he thanked the union workers who were in the building, made mention of the war veterans who were protesting against the war in the lobby, and suggested that the Washington Monument be torn down as its namesake once “traded a black man for a keg of molasses.”
He also pointed out that his 89 year old mother was in the audience and that he had it tough knowing that he was merely the “second biggest badass” in his family. It’s that ability to switch between the rage and the tenderness, the assertiveness and the intellectualism, that’s defined Morello’s persona, and it was full on display throughout the evening.
Aside from that enduring persona, the show bore little resemblance to the original Nightwatchman shows on the other side of town several years ago. This night there were no famous guest rock stars. No honky tonk rendition of Guerilla Radio. Short of a story about crashing the New York Stock Exchange after Michael Moore’s arrest while the band was filming the video for Sleep Now In The Fire, followed by a tease of the opening riff of the song, there was no Rage presence at all.
The only thing to survive from the original Nightwatchman incarnation was a song called Shake My Shit, the rare non-political song from Morello which five years ago was an idea for a song he’d just written backstage and needed an audience member to hold up the lyric sheet while performing. Now it’s a fully fledged song, demonstrating that if he’d really wanted to, he could have as a career as a pop-rock icon instead of a politico-rock cultural icon.
The song itself is perhaps a metaphor for the evolution of the Nightwatchman persona, having gone from what was originally just a random solo acoustic show to what is now a fully formed musical project. The guest starpower, the co-opted material from his other projects, it simply wasn’t needed. He even sidestepped what would have been an obvious opportunity to gloat over the recently defeated Paul Ryan, the conservative politician who bizarrely claimed to be a Rage fan in a dishonest attempt to pander to younger voters which backfired. Morello had already slam dunked him to comic effect in the media, and rather than piling on during the concert, he kept his political commentary focused on change for the better, not on winning and losing.
In what was supposed to have been the last song of the night, Morello led the crowd in a rendition of Arlo Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” stating that it should be the national anthem, and ending it by inciting the crowd into moshing – easier said than done in a club where the space between the stage measures barely twenty feet. But the small capacity of the venue, in which the standing room is no bigger than the stage, worked in his favor when he then invited the audience on stage with him, nearly all of them fitting, for one more song. And then had them sit down on stage for yet another.
The crowd, which had been cheering at an ear-piercing volume moments earlier, now merely sat in stunned silence as one of the most bombastic counterculture voices of his generation stood amongst them, playing a quiet folk tune, emphasizing the sense of community without ever having to say it. Eight days after the release of the Rage Against The Machine box set, this night was musically and atmospherically the polar opposite, yet still focused on the same message: to save yourself you’ve got to begin by saving others. Save the hammer for the man. And this land was made for you and me.