Tom Morello first brought his group shows with friends to the Hotel Café as The Nightwatchman ten years ago, and he was back there last night with his label-mates from his Firebrand Records to give us a healthy dose of music for the Resistance. In a switch from Firebrand Fridays (previously held at Genghis Cohen), this one was on a Thursday. Though it started at ten, which is pretty late for a school night, the crowd was packed in and singing along in solidarity until the last note was hit.
Morello introduced the evening, saying it was good to be back at Hotel Café, before bringing up his comrade in arms, Ryan Harvey. Harvey is one of my favorite people to turn to in times of global crisis, as he has incredible knowledge and explains things in an erudite and understandable way, often through song. He told us about how he recently went to visit Nora Guthrie, and she told him all about her father Woody’s songs, and the stories behind them. He played us “Old Man Trump” (about the current Trump’s equally disgusting father), which speaks to how they try to divide us with racism. Still. The chorus even features a Eugene Debs quote, and explains how – sadly – “Your ideals escape them.” Powerful stuff, and I’d encourage everyone everywhere to take the chance to hear Harvey play if you get it.
Harvey brought Morello back up, wearing his shades inside at night, perhaps to indicate his Nightwatchman persona had returned (otherwise I can’t really condone it). He extended greetings from his mother, Mary. She had a fall earlier in the day, and they’d spent the day in the ER, having to miss giving their fiery speech for Black History Month at his kids’ elementary school. Instead, he put it into song form, and sang about torches in the woods, and if you want a taste of freedom – “Keep Going!” It was ominous and inspiring at the same time. The kids would have dug the storytelling, I’m sure. Feel better, Mary!!!
My favorite Nightwatchman song has always been “Let Freedom Ring”, and I got to hear it again last night. It was silent in there as Morello strummed and sang about the Freedom that is in so much jeopardy right now, and I felt all emotional. He ended it with a revved up acoustic jam that fired everyone back up, loving it even more.
The outstanding Lia Rose performed next, and began by asking “How did we get ourselves into this mess?” Right? I mean, we know, but still. Ugh. She spoke about how beautiful and inspiring it is to have a friend like Morello, who walks the talk EVERY day. The shouts of “Thank you, Tom!” were heartfelt and loud. I concur with Rose. He really does fight the power EVERY single day, and we’re all so lucky to have SOMEONE out there unafraid to speak truth to power every chance he gets. And it’s contagious, as evidenced by the beautiful, equally aware songs Rose gave us. I don’t know the name of the first one, but my friend next to me just said, “Wow. She’s something else.” Totally agree. Her voice is so ethereal and expressive, you just need to experience it live. Rose was wearing a Standing Rock shirt, and dedicated her next song to the Water Warriors there. “Awake” nearly had me sobbing out loud, not prettily. The song is so beautiful, but the whole time all I could picture was that day’s news showing the tipis and camps set on fire as the Native Americans are being raided. It’s so awful, and “So cold” as the song says. Rose said, “In the future it will be very clear who was on the right side of this.” Agreed, except for it’s pretty clear right now.
The bright side is that “incredible goodness rises up greet evil”, and with that truth spoken, Rose sang her “Of Good And Evil”. It was so pretty, so hopeful, and so needed – as indeed, this whole night of rebel music was. Crucial for these times.
Headliner Ike Reilly was next, but Morello stalled for him, as he “needed a moment to get it together.” Morello told about how both he and Reilly grew up in Libertyville, Illinois, long suffering together over the Cubs until this year’s miraculous championship that has them both still beaming. Reilly stayed in the Midwest, while Morello headed for L.A., but that didn’t stop him from becoming “One of the greatest acoustic singer/songwriters of all time” – per Morello. And per every superfan Reilly had in there, and there were many. Most of them waving their arms and getting sauced. Before bringing Reilly up, Morello said, “Don’t let the People down.” There was no chance of that.
Reilly began with a new one called “Boltcutter” (that Morello titled), all about the travel ban and what’s going on right now in our world. Extra timely, and enthusiastically cheered along with … especially when he ended it with, “When they steal our dreams, we gotta steal ’em back!” Facts. Real facts.
“Anyone here a racist?” No one raised their hands to that, thank God. Reilly is a great storyteller (and writer, and guitar player, and harmonica player …) and told a yarn about how he used to have a thing for this girl in high school, who was gorgeous, but would always say these racist comments. “Laura, why you gotta be so mad that somebody else matters?” It was funny, but also biting and true (and Morello named this one “Laura”.) Reilly next told about how his Dad was in the hospital dying, and Reilly found a poem in his Bible about his girlfriend having an affair with Satan. Right around the time Reilly was born … hmmm. “Devil’s Valentine” features his Dad’s lyrics with Reilly’s music, and contains the wonderful line, “Somewhere between dreams and fear is life.” I love that. And so did a big guy that showed Reilly his back tattoo of those words once at a show, though credited the words to Ike and not Daniel Reilly. Still cool.
The Valentine theme continued with “Valentine’s Day In Juarez,” that turned into a lusty singalong. Reilly said if you didn’t know the words, “Follow the drunk ones”. A lady down front raised her hands, so we followed her. Correctly, it seemed. “They got the cocaine, Oxycontin, mushrooms, marijuana, vodka, plastic pop-off, twist one off …” was belted out by fans that sounded like they knew what they were talking about. “Loving In The Wrong Time” was just recorded with the Ike Reilly Assassination (who he said were on strike tonight), and was great, and then the drunk ones got a drinking song, with drinks all around for his “Wasted Friends”. It was super fun, and just what the Dr. Feelgood ordered.
These shows always end with an All-Star Jam, and this night was no different. The Firebrand gang brought up their friend Jason Heath, and everyone joined Reilly on his fantastic jam, “Put A Little Love In It”. Morello and Reilly played dueling guitars, and the exceptional flamenco-ish solo by Morello was summed up at song’s end by his own expression:
Because it was awesome. Morello encouraged “Singers” to come up on stage and join them, with the one caveat that they couldn’t take out their phones – they had to act like they were in the band. A slew of folks crammed up on the little Hotel Café stage and if they didn’t exactly act like they were in the band, they did at least pocket their phones. They all enthusiastically rocked out to Morello’s “The Road I Must Travel” with Morello only occasionally having to jostle for elbow room. The fans on stage were so clearly happy to be exactly right there, that it was easy when Morello called for “Once more, in solidarity, Everybody!” Done.
“I’m not entirely sure we’re done,” was met with more roars, and the ironic champagne bucket was passed around, as is the custom for these shows designed to benefit social justice organizations. This time the money will go to the relief efforts for Syrian refugees in Greece, where Harvey will be reporting to once again next week, in his own walking of the talk. These shows also customarily end with a rowdy version of “This Land Is Your Land”, which was even more special as it had been written 77 years ago to the day by Woody Guthrie in 1940. I’m sure Guthrie would be so pleased to know that it is still being sun as our “Alternative National Anthem”, and that his torch has been so valiantly carried by this bunch of modern musicians. Though Morello has undoubtedly played this a million times by now, it is always with the same fervor and conviction. Which the audience feels, and carries with them.
You will leave every Firebrand show feeling both inspired and empowered. We’re all in this together, and there are still very good people doing very good things. As we all sang out throats out, and jumped up and down together in TOTAL solidarity, you got the feeling that maybe we got this. As ever, the People have the Power. I don’t think that fact has ever been more important than now. Morello closed the night by thanking everyone, telling us all to take it easy, but to take it, and adding, “Firebrand Records is so much better than Interscope.” If this night had anything to say about it … there again is a real fact.
Thank you to everyone involved with the fantastic Firebrand – the World needs you!
*Photos by Paul Gronner Photography