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Tom Morello, Outernational, others lead the charge (and sing-alongs) on Chicago's NATO weekend

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Tom Morello (center) leads his "guitarmy" through the streets
of New York City on May 1.

Things are wrong
Things are going wrong
Can you tell that in a song?
-- Echo & the Bunnymen, "Rescue"

Throughout the fall of 2011, we heard the questions: "What do the Occupy Wall Street protestors want?" "What are their goals?" "Who speaks for them?" By year's end, there was another question: "Where's their music?"

The two inquiries are inextricably related. One reason we've had trouble grasping why the Occupiers are Occupying is because their grievances have yet to dominate the popular arts -- where spoonfuls of sugar help the medicine go down -- and their songs haven't exactly hit the charts or gone very viral.

"I had a funny conversation the other day ... about the need for new chants," says Marguerite Horberg, executive director of portoluz, which produces socially conscious art events in Chicago. "It's still all the 'Hey, hey! Ho, ho!' I think it's time for something new."

There are new protest songs out there, some powerful and potent; they're just not yet as pervasive as baby boomer cultural imperialism has conditioned us to expect from a modern social movement. With the music business now as decentralized as the Occupy movement itself, one has to rev up the search engine to unearth the musical voices of contemporary protest.

This weekend, though, some of the best of those new voices will be gathered in Chicago, occupying several events (official and otherwise) to sing their dissent in the shadow of the ballyhooed NATO summit. Speaking through hard rock, klezmer, Afrobeat, banda, Norteno, marching bands, jazz, country and, yes, traditional folk, these protest singers seek to both venerate and explode the Woody Guthrie-Bob Dylan, lone-wolf-with-an-acoustic-guitar template of musical protest.


Featuring Tom Morello, the Klezmatics, Holly Near, Toshi Reagan, Son del Viento, Jon Langford, Bucky Halkner, Kevin Coval and more
• 8 p.m. May 19
• Metro, 3730 N. Clark
• Tickets: $26-$56; (773) 549-4140;

with Graham Czach, Los Vicios de Papa and the Employees
• 9 p.m. May 18
• Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace
• Tickets: $7; (773) 478-4408;

featuring Tom Morello, Louder Than a Bomb, Chicago Afrobeat Project, Mucca Pazza, Anna Soltys, Rebel Diaz and more
• May 18-21
• Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park
• Free
Note: Permits for these concerts are still under review

The soundtrack of your strife

"No successful protest movement in our nation's history has existed without a great soundtrack," says Tom Morello, 47, guitarist from alt-rock bands Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, now solo as a socially conscious folksinger under the name The Nightwatchman. "The music behind the Civil Rights era, the anti-Vietnam protests -- some of those artists were also chart-toppers. These are different times. Occupy has a great soundtrack, but it's being played around the campfire and on the city hall steps right now. When I played Zuccotti Park last fall, I was just one of six artists that day. I played [other Occupy events] in Vancouver, in Bristol, in London. The nights were filled with song."

In 2011, Morello released a one-two punch with the albums "Union Town," featuring pro-labor rallying cries old ("Solidarity Forever," "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," "Which Side Are You On?") and new ("Union Song," "A Wall Against the Wind," the title track), and "World Wide Rebel Songs," featuring fierce, original battle cries about class, equality and justice from a distinctly working-person's point of view ("Save the Hammer for the Man," "The Dogs of Tijuana," "It Begins Tonight"). The full-length albums were released within two months of each other -- the former based on Morello's contributions to the protests against the anti-union bill delivered by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the latter inspired by many of the same grievances that fueled the Occupy demonstrations. "World Wide Rebel Songs" just spawned a new documentary, "World Wide Rebel Tour," released in 42 different versions targeting that many countries and native languages.

As a result, Morello has been adopted as something of a pied piper by Occupy groups. In March, Occupy Austin participants marched (actually, danced) across the Texas capital's downtown and gathered outside Morello's official showcase at the South by Southwest music conference. Morello quickly wrapped his indoor performance, for conference attendees only, and took his guitar into the street. Cops pulled the plug on his sidewalk PA, but Morello kept going, strumming his acoustic guitar and singing "This Land Is Your Land" and speaking to the crowd via the "human microphone."

"I love it when they pull the plug," Morello says. "I'm always ready for that. You want the crowd to get bigger and rowdier? Pull the plug."

On May 1, Morello organized and lead a "guitarmy," a legion of several hundred strummers, which marched through New York City streets and, in a sense, declared the opening of protest season.

"For the Occupy movement, this winter was our Valley Forge," Morello says. "We've gone through spring training, we're entering the election cycle and the upcoming recall vote in Wisconsin, there's a push-back against austerity in Europe -- it's going to be a great summer for people power."

Hey, Woody Guthrie

Morello's next salvo will be in Chicago, where this weekend he plans to participate in numerous events scheduled around the NATO summit, including Saturday's Woody Guthrie tribute concert.

woody1.JPGThis July would have been Guthrie's 100th birthday, and the year is filled with centennial conferences, concerts and other events around the nation paying tribute to the folk icon ( Chicago's concert this weekend is not an official centennial show (that comes next month, see below); it is produced by portoluz, born out of the ashes of Hot House, and is part of their year-long series of events about labor, "WPA 2.0: A Brand New Deal."

"We created this series when we started talking about how it felt important to look at events in light of the question of the economy -- in a post-2008, pre-99 percent language," Horberg says. "2012 came around, and we listened to the rhetoric about the G8 and NATO coming to Chicago, and it sounded very limited in its description of sort of anticipating that everybody who might have an objection to these groups must be some black bloc anarchist. ... We thought celebrating Woody Guthrie would be a great way to talk about creative protest, to have fun and give people something to do besides go to jail."

Morello, like most contemporary singer-songwriters, found Guthrie's work through others. Raised in the Chicago suburb of Libertyville ("on 7-Eleven parking lot heavy metal," he says), he segued through punk rock and hip-hop before later in life hearing Bruce Springsteen's stark, acoustic "Nebraska" album.

"That music is as heavy as anything ever made with a Marshall stack," Morello says. "I started digging through his influences, and Woody was one of them. I discovered in his catalog such incredible honest and poetic reflection of his life and times. ... Woody was the original punk rocker, there's no doubt about that. He really lived his life and music, lived and played in accordance with his convictions of liberty, equality and justice for all. It's definitely one of the things that motivated me to start doing my solo-acoustic-protest-troubadour routine. It's a powerful idea that all you need is an acoustic guitar, three chords and the truth and you can be on the front lines of people's struggles around the world."

Morello now calls Springsteen "a friend of mine," and has collaborated with him on several occasions. Morello's snaky guitar lines appear on Springsteen's latest album, "Wrecking Ball," and Morello has joined the Boss on stage several times.

Outernational relations

Morello's presence will be felt throughout this weekend's citywide demonstrations. He's planning to perform at the Barefoot Summit, a series of free concerts planned (but still pending) in Grant Park during the NATO summit. He's hoping to march with Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, and he's already made headlines as the center of a controversy over a march by National Nurses United workers. Last week, the city yanked the permit for the march, scheduled for May 18, citing Morello's participation as constituting, in the mayor's words, "kind of a rock concert." Morello responded on Twitter: "Why is Rahm Emanuel so afraid of The Nightwatchman??"

"The day it was announced I'd be playing there for the G8 protests was the same day Obama moved the G8 summit to Camp David," Morello says, chuckling. "I'm wondering if it was a coincidence. Maybe the Nightwatchman was too much for him."

Even some of Morello's protégés will be in town.


"Todos Somos Ilegales (We Are All Illegals)," a new album by Brooklyn punk band Outernational, features Morello on both the title track and a mariachi-flavored cover of Guthrie's "Deportees." The set, mixing Clash-ing fight songs with native Mexican music styles, is a concept album about the human costs of American immigration policies along its southern border, and for the last few weeks (after also participating in various Occupy events last fall) the band has been touring back and forth on either side of the Rio Grande and points west. They play Chicago this weekend, too.

"It's been wild and wooly," says Outernational singer Miles Solay, from a tour stop in Arizona. "It's an incredibly militarized and polarized situation, up and down the valley. There are neo-Nazis, Minutemen, vigilantes out here. I wondered if we'd be interacting with them on this tour, but so far not so much. The idea that any human being in 2012 is deemed illegal is obscene, absurd and obsolete to me. We didn't make an immigrant rights record, though. We made a record elucidating our vision of the way the world could be. There are a million and one stories along this border, and we're trying to tell a few as a springboard for people to see the issues in a different way. It's not a policing issue, it's a people issue."

Guthrie's song, "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)," details a 1948 plane crash, specifically the way the victims, mostly migrant workers, were dehumanized by being unnamed in official reports: "You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane / All they will call you will be 'deportees.'"

Outernational didn't plan the song to be part of a full-length album.

"I told [Morello], 'How about we do this Bob Dylan-Joan Baez bit from the Rolling Thunder Revue, when they sang 'Deportee,'" Solay says. "Let's do it as a duet. We pulled it together one afternoon at Tom's house, this Mexican-folk version. That's what kickstarted this particular record. It was just supposed to be an EP, but we wound up telling this whole story."

The band's other full-length, "Welcome to the Revolution," recorded by Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), is due later this year. But first, they're touring the immigration songs -- and joining Morello in Chicago (possibly at the Guthrie tribute, too) for a busy weekend of protest music.

"There's a lot to learn from that guy," Solay says of Guthrie. "He wrote in a very different time period and we are different people, but there are a lot of parallels between this tour and what Woody did.He was out there on the front of things. Everybody knows the railroad hobo thing, but why did he do that? He went out there and tried to know the people. You hear that in his songs, and in 'Deportees.' I've thought about that a lot. Not every band gets to do that. Singing your message at the exact time people need to hear it most -- no one should take that opportunity for granted, man."


In addition to this weekend's Woody Guthrie tribute concert, local fans will have other opportunities to celebrate the influential balladeer.

Billy Bragg, who recorded the "Mermaid Avenue" albums with Chicago band Wilco -- a project that spearheaded the recording of lost Guthrie songs plucked from the Woody Guthrie Archives -- is touring with another nod to his posthumous collaboration. He'll play two sets each night: one from his own considerable body of punk-folk music, and one of "Mermaid Avenue" tunes. Bragg and Wilco parted less than amiably, but one can still hope that a miraculous guest appearance will take place ...
June 22-23 in the Maurer Concert Hall at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $36-40. Call (773) 728-6000;

A week later, Guthrie's daughter Nora will be at the same venue leading the Woody Guthrie 100th Birthday Celebration, one of the official Woody 100 centennial events. Bucky Halker, Sons of the Never Wrong, Mark Dvorak, the Young Stracke All Stars and more will sing Guthrie songs and tell stories.
June 30 in the Maurer Concert Hall at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $21-25. Call (773) 728-6000;

Arlo Guthrie, Woody's famous folksinger son, and Mary Chapin Carpenter will wish "Happy 100th Birthday Woody Guthrie" in concert later this summer.
Aug. 19 at Ravinia, Green Bay and Lake-Cook in Highland Park. Tickets: $22 lawn, $55 pavilion. Call (847) 266-5100 (phone sales begin May 20);

On record: A box set of the "Mermaid Avenue" sessions was recently released, including both previously available volumes of the project plus a full third disc of never-before-heard songs. Most notably, Smithsonian Folkways has released "Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection," a 150-page book containing three CDs with 57 tracks. The music includes Woody's most important recordings, such as the complete version of "This Land Is Your Land," "Pretty Boy Floyd," "Pastures of Plenty" and more, but also 21 previously unreleased performances and six never-before-heard original songs, including Woody's first known -- and recently discovered -- recordings from 1937.

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Outernational will be doing an acoustic set at International Voices for Humanity and The Planet, An Evening of Arts to Oppose NATO this Friday evening, May 18, at 7 pm, along with David Rovics and poetry from Iran, Afghanistan and more. More information 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 May 11, 2012 6:00 AM.

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