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Occupy SXSW: Tom Morello carries Woody Guthrie torch through protest showcase, street party

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jwj SXSW 2012 Friday 09016b.jpg

Tom Morello leads a couple hundred Occupy Austin demonstrators
in a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land" in the street outside his SXSW
showcase late Friday night.
(Photo courtesy Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman)

AUSTIN, Texas -- During his keynote speech at this year's South by Southwest music conference, Bruce Springsteen referred to folksinger Woody Guthrie as "a ghost in the machine." In the centennial year of his birth, Guthrie has certainly haunted SXSW 2012. Springsteen and many others have sung his songs. "Woody at 100," a panel session featuring his children, Nora and Arlo Guthrie, considered his legacy.

Then Friday night, Chicago-area native Tom Morello capped off his showcase in the middle of the street, leading a throng of Occupy Austin demonstrators in a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land."

"I am the Nightwatchman and this is a one man revolution!" said Morello (who performs solo under the moniker The Nightwatchman) at the beginning of his SXSW showcase, scheduled inside the Swan Dive bar near Sixth Street and Red River in downtown Austin.

But days earlier, Morello began reorganizing what the festival had programmed for him. His showcase, he declared, would become Occupy SXSW -- all 99 percenters welcome. "SXSW has a lot of specialty shows - record companies, vodka companies, promoters and things like that," he told Rolling Stone on Tuesday. "I thought it was important that at a music gathering of that size, to have a place where the rebels, revolutionaries, rockers, rappers and the 99 percent could gather and have a mighty SXSW throw down."

Via social media and online networks, Occupy Austin spread the word and gathered Friday at the state capitol three hours before Morello's midnight showcase. The group of nearly 100 began marching toward the downtown streets already crowded with SXSW registrants and hopeful music fans.

How do you get a mob to move through a mob? By dancing. The benevolent Occupiers rolled a sound system with them, blaring mostly disco and dance tunes but also raising a ruckus with "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine, Morello's former hard rock band. About every block, they'd stop and dance, as well as wave some signs and hand out fliers. At Sixth and Brazos, the assembly inadvertently blocked traffic, which laid on the horns. The honking, however, simply raised more cheers and whoops.

Slowly, the demonstrators made their way down Sixth Street toward Morello's venue. One large banner reading "F--- the Police" was its own crowd control issue, because gawking passers-by insisted the bearers stop -- so they could take their picture with it. Irony of ironies: Midway down the street the group had to detour slightly after being blocked by a drum circle.


The Occupy Austin dance party inches its way along crowded Sixth Street
in Austin on Friday night.
(Thomas Conner/Sun-Times)

Morello started his official showcase about half an hour late, playing a few songs by himself before bringing on his latest band, the Freedom Fighter Orchestra -- and, later, special guest Wayne Kramer from Detroit punk legend the MC5 -- to tear through typically fiery Nightwatchman songs, including "Save the Hammer for the Man" and "Union Town," as well as Rage's "Bulls on Parade." The previous night, Morello had joined Springsteen on stage during his SXSW concert; Friday, Morello played Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," dedicating it to "the only Boss worth listening to."

As his official timeslot ended, Morello told the crowd -- primarily SXSW badge-holders inside -- to follow him outside. There, the largely uncredentialed Occupy crowd had been watching the showcase on a video projected on the wall. Morello proceeded to start a second showcase in the middle of the street, which he called "the people's venue" -- carrying his acoustic guitar, which has "Whatever It Takes" scrawled on it (Guthrie's guitar famously sported the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists") -- and leading the crowd in a rollicking sing-along of "This Land."

(Austin American-Statesman)

Lack of a PA didn't stop him -- not when you have the "human microphone."

"Mic check!" Morello called, and the crowd began repeating him. In a very Obama-like delivery, he went on: "They can turn off the PA, but they can't shut this party down!"

He told a tale about guitar factory workers in South Korea who were fired because they formed a union. Using the human mic, he taught the crowd the chorus to his "World Wide Rebel Songs" and lead another sing-along.

He then ended the event with yet another Guthrie quip: "Take it easy," he shouted, "but take it!"

Catch Morello when he leads a Woody Guthrie tribute concert May 19 at Chicago's Metro, featuring Holly Near, the Klezmatics, Jon Langford, Bucky Halker and more.

... and there's more SXSW 2012 coverage here!

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on March 17, 2012 10:20 AM.

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