Tell Us The Truth Tour – Variety Playhouse (Atlanta, GA)
At an afternoon press conference for the Tell Us The Truth Tour, Steve Earle told reporters that the concert at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse would be a combination of “show business and activism.”
Those words proved true from the start, as Lester Chambers, of the ’60s-’70s psychedelic funk band the Chambers Brothers, led Earle, Billy Bragg, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Rage Against The Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello, and rapper Boots Riley in a soulful rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”. Regally powerful, the 63-year-old Chambers acted as griot, singing and playing harmonica with gritty, gospel fervor — telling the receptive crowd, “We’re all here together for the whole party,” before launching into several classic blues tunes.
The fact that the thirteen-city tour was hurriedly organized, and had a revolving cast of musicians, showed in solo and group performances that ranged from shaky to thrilling, and projected the loose atmosphere of a hootenanny. But there was no mistaking the point of view of the participants, or much of the audience, who had come together to spotlight what they considered the biggest issues of the day. In the lobby, there were tables full of literature; hanging from the balcony, there were banners from Common Cause and the AFL-CIO.
Ostensibly, Bragg, Earle and the others who joined the tour united in opposition to recent FCC deregulation of media ownership, which they believe has already led to less diversity in radio and will soon do the same with TV. They also sought to raise awareness of the problems NAFTA has created for U.S. workers, and to raise concerns about the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. But the subtext all evening was the war in Iraq and the perceived failures of the Bush administration.
Earle wore a T-shirt that read, “Somewhere In Texas There’s a Village Missing an Idiot.” Mills wore a “Property of Clear Channel” T-shirt and grabbed a guitar to sing a new song that referenced the coming election (“people dig the sound of Bushes going down”), then teamed with Bragg and dedicated a stirring version of the Soft Boys’ “I Wanna Destroy You” to “George W.”
The oddest turn came as Morello appeared in the guise of “The Night Watchman” and traded his usual heavy electric guitar for a lightly-strummed (and by his own reckoning, sourly out-of-tune) acoustic. Morello sang in a deep murmur, and his rather disjointed solo set was filled with doom and gloom. The giddy highlight was an ironic cover of Devo’s “It’s A Beautiful World”.
Earle and Bragg were obviously the most comfortable in the singer-songwriter role, and also in articulating the issues at hand. Earle offered commentary and encouraged audience members to get more active, while putting several topical songs from his recent catalog in context, including “The Mountain”, “John Walker’s Blues” and “Jerusalem”.
Bragg was even more overtly political as he chided the U.S. media for not reporting the facts of the war in Iraq and compared public opinion here to that in Europe and his native England. He evoked the spirit of Woody Guthrie, especially on the Guthrie/Bragg/Wilco Mermaid Avenue song “She Came Along To Me”, which roused applause to lyrics such as, “I’m sure the women are equal, and they may be ahead of the men.”
Boots Riley, a member of the hip-hop group Coup, was the most irreverent and entertaining performer of the night. His cutting raps were both political and personal. “Five Million Ways To Kill A C.E.O.” was delivered with sharp, theatrical intensity. “Wear Clean Draws”, which he dedicated as advice to his 6-year-old daughter, was comical, but also had a pointed message: “Tell your teacher I say princesses are evil/How they got their money is they killed people.”
The three-hour-plus concert finally drew to an end as Chambers returned to the stage for a reprise of “People Get Ready”. But it soon morphed into a medley that included the players — Mills on keyboards, Morello and Bragg on guitars, Earle on mandolin — trading vocals on Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey”, Bob Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”. The inevitable encore was the Chambers Brothers hit “Time Has Come Today”, which Earle featured during his recent tour. Chambers banged away on a cowbell and swapped vocals with Earle, as most of the audience stood up, and many sang along or shouted their approval.