The Nightwatchman does it again in Boston

A review of The Nightwatchman (Tom Morello) at the Middle East Downstairs on November 17

, Staff Writer

We’ve been waiting for the rock of Rage Against the Machine to come back ever since the band took a break, reforming only for the occasional one off and a brief reunion tour. At first it seemed like Audioslave would pick carry the mantle, but that didn’t exactly work out. Zack de la Rocha is trying One Day as a Lion, but Monday night made it clear that the rock rests with The Nightwatchman. Where last year’s show of the year was a one man nylon string acoustic folk protest show, this time Tom Morello had company.

Backed by the Freedom Fighter Orchestra, Morello and his band took to the stage with the mantra "One Man Revolution", showing off their newfound fuller sound with lead guitar, drums, bass, and backing melodies. That electric opener segued nicely into the acoustic Rage-riffage of "Whatever It Takes", the lead single off his new album& The Fabled City and also the epigraph written on Morello’s acoustic.

Morello, known as a great guitar player first and foremost, has refined his baritone into a Hetfield growl, frequently barking his lines more than singing them. His recent bout of bronchitis may have played a role as well, but it all served to enhance the immediacy of his political anthems.

"The Lights Are On in Spidertown" boasted a nice bop feel, and Morello delivered a couple of impressive classical guitar solos as he was dealing with sound issues. Morello, a master of crowd banter, kept everyone engaged as the FFO left the stage, signaling the beginning of an acoustic set. That meant "The Fabled City" and "The King of Hell", the musical embodiment of foreboding, after which the former Harvard student admitted, "It’s nice to be back in my old stomping grounds."

"Midnight in the City of Destruction", a powerful lament over post-Katrina New Orleans, closed out the mini-acoustic set with smoldering intensity. Morello then brought the FFO back to the stage for the explosive "House Gone Up In Flames".

Things really picked up when Morello invited opener Boots Riley out and introduced his pending collaboration with the rapper, a band called Street Sweeper. As they debuted their track, potentially called "100 Little Curses" it was like Rage Against the Machine was back in the buiding. The song began with a martial snare rhythm as the band laid a syncopated riff over it. Boots spit like a man on fire and things kept growing into anthemic chorus after anthemic chorus, interrupted only by a searing Morello guitar solo. Street Sweeper – don’t forget that name.

The song closed out with the memorable guitar line from "Cochise" as The Nightwatchman asked the rhetorical question "Are you having a good time tonight Boston?" Next up was "The Ghost of Tom Joad", which the band played like a power ballad elegy instead of the haunting Rage version that most are familiar with. Morello even obliged with a power-esque solo, one of the best guitar solos I have ever witnessed. He progressed through seemingly every style he was capable of – flowing runs, his unique scratching technique, electronic swells, wah-wah pedal, even playing with his teeth. His virtuousic performance earned huge applause and he sheepishly thanked the crowd, saying that he never pictured playing something like that while practicing eight hours a day in his Harvard dorm room.

As the backing band left the stage once again Morello grabbed a harmonica and a bodhran for "St. Isabelle", a song he wrote for his aunt which he described as "Irish rebel war shit" but sounded more like a powerful prayer. It was impressive that he could pull off such an eclectic song in the midst of his rock show and still have it sound totally in keeping with everything else.

During his introduction to the next song Morello lamented the fact that Rage music was being used to torture prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, then strongly suggested that the current Bush administration should all undergo the same treatment after they leave office. That next song was "Guerilla Radio", which can more aptly be described as "Guerilla Radio Blues" given the new treatment that it is given at Nightwatchman shows. Morello then encouraged the crowd to cheer as loudly as possible as he tuned his guitar for the next song.

"Garden of Gethsemane" was haunting in its depiction of doubt and struggle, and it proved to be the last subdued moment of the night. As the FFO rejoined Morello for the last time the band produced a wall of guitar noise signaling the crowd pleaser "The Road I Must Travel" and it’s chorus of "Na Na Na’s", which quickly became a joyful singalong.

Morello kept his banter going, saying, "One of my favorite things about folk music is that it has a long tradition of taking well known melodies and reworking the lyrics. I’d like to take my love of Australian heavy metal and meld it with my distaste for Bush administration policy." That meant a cover of AC/DC’s "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" replete with new verses about the missteps of the past eight years. Morello also rocked the solo hard. Another cover followed as the band took a stab at Grand Funk Railroad’s "We’re An American Band". The song was high energy and lots of fun, and Morello screamed himself hoarse, displaying a level of dedication that fits with his "Whatever it takes" motto.

After a brief "Sleep Now in the Fire" tease things settled down. The band decided to forego an encore break as Morello announced, "We’re just gonna stay up here and save us all the indignity." That meant it was time for perennial show closer "This Land Is Your Land", the unedited punkabilly version featuring an impressive solo from the FFO guitarist as well as a rap breakdown from Boots. Things ended with the entire crowd jumping along with the band, singing "This land is your land, this land is my land" at the top of their lungs. If you don’t think that’s as rock as it gets, you don’t know what you’re missing.

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