Saturday, October 1, 2011


Last month, I wrote about The Nightwatchman's solo(ish) acoustic(ish) concert at City Winery in New York City.  I've been listening to his two latest releases (The Union Town EP and World Wide Rebel Songs), both before that show and since.  I think that Tom Morello is finally coming into his own as a solo artist.

Saying that Tom has "come into his own" does sound a bit weird.  He's one of the most innovative and influential electric guitarists of the past two decades, and Rage Against The Machine was one of the best bands to come out of the amazing '90s Lollapalooza era. He "came into his own" a long time ago. Audioslave may not have quite reached Rage's heights, but had lots of incredible songs over their three album run.  And Street Sweeper Social Club has a lot of potential, and already have a fistful of great jams.

But when he started performing and recording songs as The Nighwatchman, he did so to prevent people from coming to see a "Tom Morello" show. He's more in the lane of artists like Springsteen and Earle than of Rage's peers.

When Tom did his first Nightwatchman album, One Man Revolution, in 2007, lots of the songs were pretty dry.  It reminded me a bit of Springsteen's The Ghost Of Tom Joad, which I know was a big influence on Mr. Morello. Both guys were really influenced by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.  The first few performances I ever saw by any artist were by Pete, and the thing about him is that, as political as he is, he wants you to sing along, and maybe have a good time while thinking about the world. Tom had one great sing-along on his first album, "The Road I Must Travel," but the rest of album wasn't as engaging (although there were definitely some great songs).  I felt like the album would appeal mainly to Tom's existing loyal fans, but I don't think that was his intent.

I think World Wide Rebel Songs actually may help him find a different audience, and may not just have him preaching to the converted.  Don't get me wrong, I don't think a lot of Faux News loyalists will start listening to Tom and have their minds opened.  I'm saying that his two latest release makes him a more credible solo artist, regardless of his prior discography.

My favorite Nightwatchman song ever is probably "Save The Hammer For The Man," a duet and co-write with the great Ben Harper. I'd love to see these guys do more together.  "World Wide Rebel Songs" is a great sing-along.  He gets his Tom Waits on on "Facing Mount Kenya."  And, here is maybe the best compliment  I could give him: when I listen to "Stray Bullets," I can hear the late, great Joe Strummer singing it.

The bonus track on the album is the title track to the EP, released a few months earlier, "Union Town." It's another of his best songs, and the first time he's really combined his Nightwatchman persona with his electric guitar wizardry.  He's said that playing an electric version of "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" on stage with Bruce Springsteen made him realize that he could combine the two.  But he's not always about the electric guitar on this EP: his rollicking version of "Solidarity Forever" is a piano and acoustic guitar driven tune. He takes out the electric for an incredible version of "Which Side Are You On?" and his "This Land Is Your Land" is the most rocking I've ever heard (and of course, includes the "banned" lyrics).    It closes with a solo live version of "Union Song" from One Man Revolution recorded at the Wisconsin protests earlier this year. The original version is pretty great, but this is the definitive one for me.

I imagine the next thing Tom will do will be a new Street Sweeper album, which I'm also looking forward to.  But I also think that The Nightwatchman will get more and more powerful in the years to come.  Given the state of the nation, I don't think Tom's running out of ideas, or great music, any time soon.

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