Besides censorship, commercial marginalization, police harassment and possible jail time, possibly the greatest occupational hazard for the protest singer is this: What if your side wins?
The election of a certain Illinois senator to the White House poses this dilemma for songwriters conditioned to an eight-year reign that provided a certain comfort level of guaranteed agitation. In case there may be a threat that creative ideas were drying up, tomorrow’s headlines would make certain that never happen.
There were hints of an impasse Saturday at the Vic, for a benefit for Rock For Reading, a Chicago-based literacy organization. Tom Morello and Steve Earle, the event’s co-headliners and also the two most activist voices in music over the last decade, appeared hesitant to fully bask in Barack Obama’s victory, although acknowledging that yes, it was better than the alternative.
Morello, whose activist credentials were blazed as the guitarist in Rage Against the Machine, appeared with a new band dubbed “the Freedom Fighter Orchestra.” His 70-minute set covered the gamut of rebel styles, including Irish rock, primitive folk declarations and the guitar mania he is best known for in Rage.
Morello’s “milk chocolate baritone” limited the range of his songs from very serious to very, very serious. On “Guerilla Radio,” a reworking of one of Rage’s most effective songs into solo acoustic blues, this was especially powerful, and on “Gardens of Gethsemane,” his solemnity brought the crowded house down to silence.
The guitar flash was more engaging, as Morello played his instrument with/without tongue, upside down, backwards and filtered through a warehouse of effect pedals. “I never thought in my lifetime a somewhat progressive African-American would be elected,” he said.
Earle arrived onstage expecting to talk about the election as well, but first played songs from the Bush years. Songs like “F the CC” and “Christmas in Washington” decried corporate control of the airwaves and the White House, but sounded even now like yellowed postcards from a different era.
The lackluster new songs that dominated his 80-minute set didn’t help. These included “Sparkle and Shine,” written in the glow of his marriage, featured lyrics so insipid they should be grounds for divorce.
Perhaps as a freshener, programmed tracks provided backdrop to his acoustic guitar. This would have been interesting had it not been for the unnecessary presence of a “DJ” who really just twiddled a knob and then stood behind his boss and lip-synched. As for unnecessary distraction, so was Allison Moorer, Earle’s current wife whose drab vocals clashed with the gruff and huff of his own.
Earle followed up the disclosure that Obama earned his vote by promising to end the Iraq war by saying that starting Inauguration Day he would hold vigil “demanding he keep this promise.”
He announced his next project would be an album of covers by Texas legend Townes Van Zandt, but even that news added to the stale instincts by a songwriter once one step ahead but whose creative wheels now seem spinning in reverse.