IN TUNE: Even if he didn’t invite everyone onstage at the end of the show, Tom Morello’s electrifying performance at City Winery would have still been one for the ages — bursting with passion, commitment, integrity, honor, duty and dedication to the fight for justice for all.
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From the moment he stepped into the spotlight, through some deep and intensely meaningful folk songs, on through an impassioned Hendrix-esque guitar solo during a heart-shaking cover of Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad,” Morello was a fireball.
Many may not have understood when Morello spoke of the importance of a country’s people taking what is rightfully theirs, or of the critical significance of American’s unions.
Maybe they were just into the cute guy banging out the anthems.
Still, those who connected on that deeper level found a kinship that’s in rare supply these days — save for Billy Bragg, Steve Earle and a scant few others.
“West 146th Street: what up?” the New York City-born Morello shouted to the racuous downtown crowd, before performing several songs from his new Nightwatchman project, “World Wide Rebel Songs.”
What’s distinctive about his third full-length album as The Nightwatchman (and 14th overall, including Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave) is the clear line Morello draws from Woody Guthrie through John Steinbeck straight to himself.
He is no longer just singing about resistance and justice. He is preaching it.
In fact, he was doing the media junket, Morello said, when a reporter “snidely” asked what good unions had ever done for the U.S.
“The fact that you’re not working weekends is one thing,” he said. “The fact that your 8-year-old daughter doesn’t have to work in a coal mine….”
We also take bridges and other infrastructure for granted, but their creation was “mixed with the blood of the working class,” Morello said. Those who weren’t getting the message throough the music, or didn’t want to, could NOT help but hear that.
And although the Harvard-educated Morello packed plenty of anthems, he also unveiled some deeper, more personal ballads — and, like one of his heroes, Bruce Springsteen, asked that the crowd keep it down for those. At times, he sounded exactly like Dave Alvin, singing tenderly with a deep, rich, full baritone.
Morello had a bit of help, thanks to New Jersey’s own Carl “The Wizard” Restivo, a member of his Freedom Fighter Orchestra when Tom assumes the role of The Nightwatchman. Besides some excellent guitar chops, Restivo flashed a rich singing voice that perfectly complemented Morello’s lower depths.
Morello gave a shout-out to Iraq Veterans Against the War , a group tied closely to another of his heroes, Steve Earle.
“There’s nothing more compassionate than a soldier who wants to stand up against an unjust war,” he said.
It was the theme of individual might gathered collectively that ran through Morello’s entire show.
“It’s the people who are not in the movies or on TV who … have their hand on that wheel of history,” he said, “and it’s time they start jerkin’ that fuckin’ thing in the right direction.”
That led him into a haunting version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” It was in the middle of that song that Morello, who’d kept his immense talent in check through much of the night, unleashed a guitar fury — ripping off licks, flipping his fingers up and over the fretboard, even playing with his teeth.
Instead of walking off and being called back for the encore, Morello dispensed with the pretense and launched into a captivating ballad from “One Man Revolution,” about of one of the best-known moments of doubt ever, a gentle song called “The Garden of Gethsemane”:
“On the side of the dirt road
An old Chevy wreck
I climbed through the window
I sat in the back
I gathered my thoughts
With my head in my hands
My next of kin
My list of demands
I slipped from shadow to shadow
I saw things I should not see
The moon rose high
Over the Garden
The Garden of Gethsemane
I know who I’m for
And who I’m against
I pulled the shades tight
I built me a fence
I dug a tunnel
Deep and wide
I sit at the bottom
And wait for the night
Morning has come
Clean clothes on the line
There’ll be no tomorrow
I rise and I shine
If you swallow the coin
From the wishing well
Your dreams will come true
In heaven or hell
Take my hand
Down we go
Take my hand, love
Down we go.”
Morello had the crowd on its feet — and, as always, pogoing — for “This Land is Your Land” and then on the stage for the close. And although it was a bit hectic for the City Winery staff, the communal connection spoke volumes about the man’s heart and conviction.
Pay heed, everyone. This kind of brilliance doesn’t pass our way often.
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