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Singing for change that's more than spare

Published November 16, 2003

Tom Morello sometimes sounds more like a history professor than a rock star.

"History is yours to make," Morello said by phone from a recent Detroit tour stop. "Progressive change doesn't come from the wisdom of presidents or the Supreme Court. It comes from average, everyday people standing up for what's right."

Morello, who was the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and is now with Audioslave, has a strong activist resume. And his political views are coming more center stage with his latest gig, the Tell Us the Truth Tour.

Stopping Monday at the Tampa Theatre, the show features a roster of socially and politically conscious artists, including British folkie Billy Bragg, country troubadour Steve Earle, Morello (who performs under the moniker the Nightwatchman) and psychedelic soul singer Lester Chambers. Together, the musicians put on a forum for protest music, almost a campfire political meeting with artistic edge, the way Morello tells it.

"On the one hand, (the show) harkens back to that tradition of diverse musicians with common politics coming together to attempt to make some sort of change, to make some waves," Morello said. "On the other hand, musically it's very forward looking. We're not going to be holding hands and singing Kumbaya."

Conceived by Bragg, the Tell Us the Truth tour has been crisscrossing the United States for three weeks, trying to raise awareness about media consolidation and free trade.

"The tour connects two specific events," Morello said. "One was a conference in Madison (Wis., where the tour began) about media consolidation, and the other is the anti-FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) rally in Miami. And the tour physically connects those two points on the map and draws connections between the issues of media consolidation and globalization and what they have to do with one another.

"And what they do have to do with one another is that a few massive corporations will control all of what you see and hear on the TV, radio and in print. That's something which greatly undermines people's access to information. It undermines diversity of opinions that we have access to and (it) undermines democracy."

The tour, presented locally by WMNF-FM 88.5, is sponsored in part by the AFL-CIO and Common Cause. Both are pressing Congress to undo new Federal Communications Commission rules that relaxed decades-old ownership restrictions on radio and television stations and newspapers.

Several major media companies pushed for the changes, arguing that the old rules predated the growth of cable, satellite broadcasting and the Internet, and harmed their ability to compete.

Strong as the political messages are on the tour, Bragg emphasized that the music that carries the message is the key ingredient.

"Entertainment's the most important thing. These gigs will be entertaining, I promise you," Bragg told the Associated Press in an interview. "The most we can do is offer the audience a different perspective and make people understand that music doesn't just come out of the radio."

Fans know what to expect from Bragg, whose latest release, Must I Paint You a Picture, a double album, documents the rabble-rouser's two-decade career. Same goes for Earle, who last year drew criticism for his song John Walker's Blues, which empathized with John Walker Lindh, the Californian who fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Earle included the tune on his latest album, a live set called Just an American Boy.

Though Morello is most famous for plugged-in rock, he promises that his acoustic tunes, which have critics comparing him to Leonard Cohen, won't inspire any mosh pits.

"Music can be very powerful and heavy without having distorted electric guitars accompanying it," he said. "Some of my favorite records and some of the heaviest records in my collection are just made with voice, acoustic guitar and harmonica, whether it's Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin' or Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. Those are records that are really powerful, dark, weighty albums that don't have any shredding or mosh-pit-inducing activity on them whatsoever."

Morello sees no conflict between his roles as entertainer and social critic; he sees his activism as an obligation.

"This is the way that I look at it: When I picked up a guitar, I didn't put down my First Amendment rights, and whether you write for a paper, or whether you go to school, or whether you fix cars, I think it's important to express your opinions about what you see in the world around you," he said. "And that's how all progress and change has come in the history of this country. It's been people whose names are not highlighted in the history books standing up for what's right."

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.


The Tell Us the Truth Tour, featuring Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Tom Morello the Nightwatchman and Lester Chambers, 7:30 p.m. Monday, Tampa Theatre, 711 Franklin St., Tampa. $26. (813) 274-8286. For information:

[Last modified November 14, 2003, 10:07:26]

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