Steve Earle, The Nightwatchman & Ben Harper at L.A.’s Troubadour
I’m in the mood for some serious rabble-rousing. Yesterday I saw “Capitalism: A Love Story” in the morning, and then went to see Steve Earle and Tom Morello/The Nightwatchman at night. Let us just say that after a breezy and blissful Summertime, my hackles are all the way back up.
Steve and Tom had a three night stand at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, each of them sold out. I went on the last night, but it seemed that many in the house had been to all three. It was a VERY receptive audience, fired up from the start.
Tom opened the night with the title track from his debut solo album, “One Man Revolution”. If there is anyone you’d want leading a revolution, it is Tom. His ability to work a crowd is unparalleled, from what I’ve ever seen. That song led into “Flesh Shapes The Day”, with its reminder that, “SI SE PUEDE!” We really can. “The Fabled City” is the title track to Tom’s second album, and this version saw him bring out a Stompbox that I haven’t seen him use before. This got the crowd clapping along, until Tom said, “Ok, stop clapping. That was very rhythmic and sexy, and better than Night One, but now it’s back to the serious stuff.”
Tom’s Aunt Isabelle died at 82 years old, in the same room she was born in. Tom traveled the world and took her with him through his stories and postcards, and now that she’s gone, he plays her tribute song, “St. Isabelle” in “Exciting and exotic places … like Doug Weston’s Troubadour”, and carries her with him still. His harmonica and single Irish War Drum punctuate the feeling pouring out of every word directly Heavenward. It’s pretty damn touching, every time.
“What’s past is past. The future is unwritten, and history as it goes forward is yours to make”, was the truth Tom spoke to introduce, “House Gone Up In Flames”. Seeing “Capitalism” earlier in the day, and the peoples’ uprisings in that film, as well as having been alongside Tom in other uprisings … I know this all to be absolutely for sure. All that’s ever made ANYTHING happen positively in this and every country, has come from the PEOPLE saying NO. MORE. And doing something about it.
Tom got his revolutionary cues by being “the second most radical member of the Morello family”, the first being his Mother, Mary, who turned 86 last week. He’s not kidding. She is an absolute inspiration, and was in the house on this night to hear her son dedicate “The Garden Of Gethsemane” to her. He said, “this song is about moments of doubt, which I’ve never had with her.” It’s a gorgeous song, and the place was silent – so much so that Tom could step away from the mic to sing the last verse. The last chord faded and the joint erupted in cheers. I love to see the quiet ones get what they deserve.
But then Tom told the crowd that his day job was playing guitar in a little band called Rage Against The Machine, and busted into his acoustic version of “Guerilla Radio”. “All HELL can’t stop us now!” Again, fact. This song got what it deserved as well, and Tom cracked, “Thank you KROQ listeners.”
We worked in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans last year on Tom’s Justice Tour, and will be affected by it forever. Tom wrote, “Midnight In The City Of Destruction” about the irredeemable loss there, and said that,”Sometimes once something’s gone, you can’t get it back” (um, like the chunk of my flesh I lost getting bit by a Brown Recluse while there). It is a devastating song, just like the place it’s about. They STILL need our help, everybody. Look into how you may, because it could be you needing it one day. “LA la la la la la la la” has never been sung more hauntingly.
Then, to my delight and surprise, Tom introduced “One of the most Innocent Criminals I know, my fellow traveler, Ben Harper!” Ben climbed over the seated audience members (CHAIRS in the Troubadour!) onto the stage, and he and Tom both strapped on acoustic guitars to kill us with Ben’s song, “Gather ‘Round The Stone”. It cuts right to the bone, with its lyric, “You’re too young to know that you’re too young to go, there’s no freedom to be found lying face up in the ground.” Honestly. Tom threw out a flamenco style solo that brought some mad appreciation. Over too soon, Ben shouted a “Happy Birthday” up to Mary, and hopped back into the audience for the rest of the show. Tom ended his set with his sing-along song, “The Road I Must Travel”, urging everyone to sing along the “Na na na na!” chorus “All together in solidarity” – which is exactly what it feels like to be at one of his shows. “TAKE IT EASY, BUT TAKE IT!” was Tom’s parting shot … but he’ll be back.
Steve Earle. Tom said that within the first 4 hours of meeting Steve Earle, they were both tear-gassed at a protest, and he knew it would be a long and lasting friendship. I met Steve Earle last year with Tom when we were in Minnesota, Taking Back Labor Day and Raging against the RNC, and we were surrounded by Riot Police at the time, so you know the guy walks the walk. His latest album, “Townes” is a tribute to Townes Van Zandt. Steve – after taking the stage to wild claps and shouts – said, “I had a friend and teacher, his name was Townes”, and launched into his first song. I don’t have this album yet (on its way as of an hour ago), so I’m not super familiar with the titles yet, but it – and every song of the night – was fantastic. Equally as fantastic are Steve’s stories, told in his Texas drawl, with a rebel’s attitude. He told how he met his hero, Townes, when he was 17 and it was the coolest thing that ever happened. He said, “I’m 54 1/2 now, and it’s still the coolest thing that ever happened.” He told a story about Townes and his horse, Amigo, who Townes adored. Steve was driving through the snowy mountains of Colorado, with “headlights like ghosts coming at me, and I swear I saw Townes and Amigo riding five different times in that snowstorm”, which gave him the idea, “I’m gonna make an album of Townes songs … and this one ain’t on it” … so I don’t know what it was called, but it was great, and featured the great advice, “Holding on is all you gotta do …”.
And Steve Earle has done a lot of that in his life. During his story-telling (and all of my favorite musicians are excellent story tellers … no coincidence, I’m sure), Steve told of how he’s a recovering heroin addict, had been in jail (“The first day in jail, you find the biggest guy and knock him out if you can. That way you keep your radio.”), and raised a whole lot of hell, to the point where he said, “It’s not a good sign when Townes shows up to give you a temperance lecture.” But he’s still standing, playing, and rebelling, and he began, “Pancho & Lefty” to the fans’ great delight. Classic.
Steve said his other teacher, Guy Clark, told him there are two kinds of music, “The Blues and Zippity Doo Dah. This is NOT Zippity Doo Dah” and played the extra-bluesy “Brand New Companion”. Sublime. As was “My Old Friend The Blues.” The people got very happy when Steve played his own tune, “Someday” and for good reason. It rules. And they knew every word of it. Same with his “Goodbye”. If you didn’t understand the blues before this show, you did now.
Steve met his hero, Townes, when he “was the whole front row at one of my shows”, and Townes kept heckling him to play, “Wabash Cannonball”. Steve didn’t know it, so tried to impress him with his version of TVZ’s, “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold”. It worked, and they were the best of friends the rest of Townes’ life. Clearly. Steve then told a story about how he grew up in “Occupied Mexico” (Texas) and never really learned Spanish that well, but his NYC neighborhood Deli owner, Mr. Kim (A Korean man), had had to learn it to keep up with the times. Steve dedicated his next one to Mr. Kim, “City Of Immigrants” … driving home that “ALL of us are immigrants.” Remember that.
Our President was given the Nobel Peace Prize last week (Congratulations!) and Steve said that “People have been bitching about it, but the people bitching about it don’t care much about Peace prizes.” Word. He voted for Obama and “hasn’t regretted it for one second – so far.” With that he introduced his song (sung in a much more peaceful Belfast 10 days ago), “Jerusalem”, by saying that “I’m gonna keep singing it ’til I die or it comes true, whatever happens first.” It has probably helped the Peace process all on its own, that’s for sure … “Well maybe I’m only dreamin’ and maybe I’m just a fool, But I don’t remember learnin’ how to hate in Sunday school.” Rewind and listen again. Repeat.
Steve brought Tom (sporting some beard growth in tribute to Steve’s massive one) back up to accompany him on ELECTRIC guitar on the last Townes song of the night, “Lungs”, that he said, “If this song doesn’t scare you to death, then you’re over-medicated.” I was cold sober, and terrified. Tom’s spooky guitar effects (also heard on the album version) perfectly illustrated lyrics like, “Jesus was an only son, And love his only concept, Strangers cry in foreign tongues, And dirty up the doorstep, And I for one, and you for two, Ain’t got the time for outside, Just keep your injured looks to you, We’ll tell the world we tried.” Chilling. With guys like this speaking out, we WILL tell the World we tried.
Encore time (“This has been a gas, and I wish Townes was here to enjoy it.”) brought Steve classics, “Copperhead Road” and “The Mountain”, which he dedicated to Daryl Hannah, who was recently arrested for protesting mountain top removal of coal (and who was sitting right next to me, as pretty as her Splash days. Cool lady). Then, in the finale of the evening, Steve brought up both Tom and Ben to play the song that SHOULD be sung at the 7th Inning Stretch, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”. Tom always closes his own shows with this inspiration, so took the lead on instructing the crowd on when to listen, sing, JUMP! The three comrades took turns with the verses (ALL of them, not just the grade school ones), each in his own way: Ben WAILING his words, Tom guitar beating with abandon, and Steve blowing his harmonica away. EVERY single body in The Troubadour was off its feet in the air for the last chorus, celebrating the fact that this land WAS made for you and me, and knowing that “The wheel of history is in YOUR hands!”, as Tom cried to end the night. Rabble ROUSED.
And it is in our hands, you know. Last year’s election showed that. Worker’s strikes show that. Calling your Congresspeople and getting them to vote NO on Bank bailouts showed that (not that it ultimately worked, but still … it CAN!). Turning out en masse for protests shows that. Going to shows like these and jumping and singing in solidarity shows that. Showing that you CARE in any way shows that. We just can’t let up. There remains SO much work to be done, in our own country, and around the world, that there is no choice in the matter.
Freedom is not free. You have to work for it. For Liberty and Justice for ALL.