By Mark Guarino
In case you thought May Day was a special holiday for backyard horticulturists, a concert tour arrived at the Park West Thursday to help you brush up on your labor history.
The international holiday was established to commemorate the slaughtered Chicago strikers at the Haymarket Square and their subsequent trial in 1886, considered the pivotal moment for the struggling labor movement. Yet for a concert benefiting modern day laborers (the Service Employees International Union), the nearly four-hour show felt inefficient and off topic.
Organizer Tom Morello, the guitarist and activist behind Rage Against the Machine who is also a Libertyville native, assumed the role as emcee of the Justice Tour, performing his own protest folk songs, adding backup guitar elsewhere and reminding the sold-out crowd why they were there in the first place.
While his credentials of putting words into action as an organizer and musician can’t be argued against, Morello failed to harness a show that lacked focus and sagged more often than it soared. With nine performers performing separate sets, the performances were mostly sepia-toned, lacking the urgency one would associate confronting the daily diet of economic unrest and political subterfuge plastered across news tickers every day. For a tour billed as one of political and social insurgency, the night had little of either.
Much of this had to do with volume. Chicago’s Justice Tour bill (they varied depending on the city) was overstocked with players who did not belong, or simply looked uncomfortable, on a tour presumably meant to raise awareness of issues their music never did.
Country pop veteran Jessi Colter performed her 1975 hit “I’m Not Lisa” while her son, the rising alt-country singer Shooter Jennings, choose to end his set playing Audioslave’s “I Am the Highway,” accompanied by Morello. Later, Perry Farrell, the former Jane’s Addiction frontman and today best known as the face of Lollapalooza, performed a droopy, quasi-mystical three-song set which ended with “Jane Says,” his biggest hit. The night’s “special guest” — Sen Dog of stoner hip-hop group Cypress Hill — delivered the frat party oldie, “Insane in the Brain.”
Only a single acoustic guitar accompanied most sets, which, by the second hour, helped to glaze over most of the audience. The standout moments were few: Morello transforming Rage’s “Guerilla Radio” by himself, Boots Riley of The Coup detailing urban desolation in a single song and Wayne Kramer of Detroit’s MC5 playfully skewering both the establishment while later toasting poet Charles Bukowski in a sax-guitar set of rock fusion and spoken word. Headliner Ben Harper arrived with a full band, but played four sludgy and identical blues jams.
By the time the rock portion of the show started up, the night had already spanned two hours and 30 minutes. Morello corralled all the performers in one place, but even they looked disinterested. Kramer started with a frenetic version of the MC5 classic “Kick out the Jams,” but long before that, the jams were few and the kick soft.