Tom Morello: Sunday afternoon, Harbor Stage
Of every artist who covered Woody Guthrie at Newport this year, the one that most closely embodied Woody's strong anti-authoritarian fervor was Tom Morello. Performing as the Nightwatchman, but billed simply by his name, Morello's set knocked down the barriers of Newport Folk Festival — literally and figuratively.
The one-time Rage Against the Machine guitarist started off his set with a few slow numbers, including "One Man Revolution," the title track of his first Nightwatchman album. "The time is night/The day is dark/There's only one solution," Morello sang to a crowd who'd been enthusiastically waiting for him. "I'm a one man/One man/I'm a one man revolution."
At a festival like Newport, full of wanna-be Woodys, those sorts of lyrics can easily feel contrived, but with Morello, knowing his dedication to direct action — imaging the pictures of him leading Occupy Wall Street's "guitarmy" earlier this year — it felt politically powerful, a rare vibe at this fest. Morello dedicated a soft-spoken song, "The Garden of Gethsemane," to the victims of last month's Aurora, Colorado shooting, before bringing out his electric guitar.
Right before heading over to this set, I'd caught New Multitudes — the aforementioned project of Jay Farrar and Jim James, playing solely Guthrie songs. The set had many high points — the more minimal moments where one band member sang Guthrie's poems over bare guitar were really beautiful — and the band's album, released in February, is surely one I'll be obtaining soon. But some points also made me cringe. Like hearing four white guys with beards sing, "I need a socially conscious woman to ease my revolutionary mind," set to generic alt-country rock.
On the other hand, when Tom Morello played the same song, swapping Woody's words, "I need a socially conscious woman," to "I need an anarchistic woman" and "I need an Occupy Wall Street woman" — it felt right. But Morello's explicitly politically charged songs were a rarity at the festival.
"You know, my friends always ask me what it's like to play Newport Folk Festival," Morello told the crowd, mid-set. "They ask, 'Is it all rich hippies in beach chairs?' And I always tell them, 'No, it's people who really want to hear music.' " That may be true, but there certainly are a lot of rich hippies in beach chairs at Newport Folk Festival, and in that context, the latter portion of Morello's set felt particularly groundbreaking.
When Jackson Browne joined the Nightwatchman on stage for an encore, a version of "This Land Is Your Land," the room erupted. Morello insisted everyone stand up and get close to the stage. "History is what we do. We can turn it in the direction of the 99 percent. This land is your land," he told the crowd, who lent their voices to a rowdy rendition of the classic, which included rad verses about class war that are often left out in grade school sing-a-longs.
Following that song, Morello asked the crowd if they wanted to hear one more. "Convince my ass you want to hear one more song!" he screamed, telling the crowd that if he was going to do one more, we all had to be in this together. "I need to know right now that we are in this together. If that's true, why are we up here and you're down there?" he asked. "Come on up here, people."
Morello invited the crowd to join him on stage, frightening security and freaking out state troopers, who tried to stop the crowd, and told the singer to cut it out. "Officer, I made a living off of a song that says 'Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me,'" he replied. "It's going to be fine."
And when the stage was finally full? "We just occupied Newport Folk Festival!"
His new stage-mates (myself included) sang along for "World Wide Rebel Song," as officers and troopers attempted to pull everyone from the stage. "Sing with me, Officer!" Morello urged. As a state trooper pulled me from the stage, I felt like I was experiencing a moment of history for Newport Folk. "In case I never get asked back here, truly thank you very much!" he said, upon ending his set.
I'm sure Woody would have been into it.