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Rise Against's Tim McIlrath on unplugged Revival Tour

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Since 2008, the Revival Tour has been an annual traveling conclave of punk musicians -- who all play unplugged.

Previous tours have found members from bands such as Against Me!, Flogging Molly, the Gaslight Anthem, Bedouin Soundclash, Chicago's Lawrence Arms and many more, each picking up acoustic instruments instead of the usual electric barrage.

"From the top, we play and sing together, showcasing a song from each artist's catalog that's on the bill that evening," the tour's founder, Chuck Ragan of the band Hot Water Music, said recently. "There're usually five to six artists as well as back-up accompaniment of fiddles, upright bass, mandolins, banjos and more. After this, most will peel off to spotlight one of the artists aboard who'll present their own works."

It's a modern hootenanny, and Tim McIlrath of Chicago's Rise Against couldn't wait to jump on the tour.

THE REVIVAL TOUR
• 8 p.m. April 9
• House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
• Tickets: $20 advance, $22 day of show; (800) 745-3000; therevivaltourtix.com

"I've loved Chuck's music for a long time, and my high school band opened for his band at Fireside Bowl years ago," McIlrath recalls. "Last year, I went down to the [Revival] show at the Bottom Lounge, and backstage it was all these people from different worlds singing different kinds of songs. There was so much camaraderie. I got the sense that they were all having a lot of fun and learning a lot and becoming better musicians. I wanted in."

This year's Revival Tour features Ragan, McIlrath, Rocky Votolato, Jenny O, Jenny Owen Youngs, Streetlight Manifesto's Toh Kay, Loved Ones' Dave Hause.

McIlrath paused between some March shows Rise Against played in South Africa and the start of the Revival Tour to talk about both, plus the recent history of emergent protest music:

Q: What was South Africa like?
Tim McIlrath: It was incredible. We've been a band for 12 years now and hit a lot of places a band like us can hit. But deep down we're travelers. The first years in the band, in our young 20s, we were playing all these new countries and running around like tourists. Now we play the same places over and over -- which is exciting, I'm not complaining -- it's just cool to find a new frontier for your band. South Africa is definitely that. There's so much going on there. We think history is something that happened in the past, but I feel like South Africa is living history. It's not done yet.

Q: It's got to be a cauldron of interesting, socially conscious music, yes?
McIlrath: They have so much material to sing about, and an urgent need to sing about it, and some things down there are so complicated one of the only ways to grasp the issue is to work it out through a song. It's also an uphill battle for bands down there, being so isolated. It took us 12 years as a band to make it there. It's an expensive trip. It's hard for us to get down there, and it's even harder for bands there to get elsewhere. So they're very isolated.

Q: Which sometimes makes for an interesting scene.
McIlrath: Yeah, because the people who are doing it there are doing it for the right reasons. They're doing it despite the fact that they're not going to have a Los Angeles label showcase. It's a lot like when I was growing up in Chicago, really. We weren't East Coast or West Coast. When my band left Chicago, we were going to play smaller cities -- Milwaukee, Detroit, Indianapolis, college towns. In Chicago, you're already in the biggest city around you, though it's not a hotbed for labels and industry. It's like a private party that way, and so the people around me were doing music because they loved music. There wasn't a whole heck of a lot of hope of breaking outside the circle. It filtered out people doing it for the wrong reasons.

Q: We last spoke in 2011 after you'd performed at the Wisconsin labor rallies and as Occupy Wall Street was heating up. In 2013 now, have you taken any stock of that year and what the musical expressions of protest might have accomplished, if anything?
McIlrath: One of the more meaningful things that happened that year was it really energized this sort of blossoming counterculture in America. It legitimized activism and spoke to so many people from my generation who haven't found ways to articulate how they're feeling. My generation tends to be way down into ritual apathy. They don't want to talk about politics or culture, or they go so far as to knock people who do. It's "let's all just not give a sh--." Certainly in music there should always be release and places to go to forget, but I'm always surprised that this decade hasn't produced more Neil Youngs, Bob Dylans, a Credence Clearwater Revival, something like those big activist folk-rock legends who weren't living in the margins. Those were huge artists speaking out; they weren't a fringe movement. I thought this decade would produce that, as well. It hasn't. There are bands out there doing their part, and I think what Occupy and the labor rallies in Wisconsin did was give people a place to go, a place where they felt part of a counterculture they didn't even know existed. Maybe they don't agree with everything, but at each of those events I found people who were fed up and wanted to do something about it and were sick of just typing in [online] message boards.

Q: So what did you learn from those experiences that you'll apply to the next Rise Against album or the next social topic you address through song?
McIlrath: I learned that my generation is largely unaware of the reasons why things like a union even exists. They believe corporations are corrupt and that when people answer to no one but shareholders bad things happen, but they can't connect the dots and see that unions are part of protecting people in a small way. They're not perfect, for sure, but getting rid of them is not the solution. Making them better is. It's issues like that I feel I can tackle because they're not tackled before or seriously in much music. That's something I can lend to the conversation. That's something the band thinks about: not just regurgitating ideas that are already out there in force. Like, two years ago we wrote a song about the tragedy of gay teen suicide. We're in this rock band that lives in these circles that are so testosterone-driven and macho. We felt like that was something we could contribute to. We could put water where that fire is.

The Revival Tour Documentary. from Ryan Mackfall [team crashburn] on Vimeo.


Q: When you were describing your 2011 experience in Madison, you voiced some trepidation about performing with only an acoustic guitar. So why are you now on an acoustic tour?
McIlrath: It's definitely different. When I walk on stage at a Rise Against show, I have this whole arsenal of weaponry I can use to fire up five or 10,000 people. I'm comfortable there. I don't get nervous. I feel like I know what I'm doing. Then when I walk out just me and a guitar into a small club, I feel like I've checked those weapons at the door. I can't scream into the mike and tell people to get off their seat. I can't jump into the crowd, can't smash gear on stage. With Rise Against, if I'm losing the audience I can get physically more into it and I'll get them back. This show is just you, a guitar and your voice. This is all you have. You can't use those other tricks. It's really intimidating at first. But I don't like being comfortable. I want to go out there and feel nervous again. Like many times in my life, I've leapt here before I looked. Sometimes you have to do that and figure it out on the way down.

Q: It's been two long years on the road. What's next for Rise Against?
McIlrath: Taking a breather. We're playing some festivals. Otherwise, we're lying low. We'll reconvene when we're ready, and we'll write a new record and do it all over again. But it takes time to get some perspective. If we went inot the studio right now we could create a record, but I don't want to do that from inside the storm.

Q: Because then you'd write the dreaded road album, right?
McIlrath: Exactly! That's when bands lose me. They're so great at first writing about their crappy 9-to-5 job or, if they're young, how much they hate their parents. Then the third record is about how much they hate their dressing room and why 18 percent isn't enough of a cut from the merch. There's no audience for that! It's better when they're singing about their graveyard shift job at Denny's. We don't want to fall into that trap. In order to sing about life, you have to live a little.


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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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