Music & Clubs

Keeping Watch

Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine adds guitar and activist muscle to the M.U.S.E. No-Nukes benefit
CALM, NO BOMB: Tom Morello, the Rage Against the Machine guitarist who performs solo as the Nightwatchman, plays at the No Nukes Benefit at Shoreline Sunday.

HAVING LEVERAGED his success as guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave into social justice campaigns around issues like war, poverty, labor, immigration and many more, Tom Morello has earned his reputation as the most committed activist musician to come out of his generation of rock stars.

Of course, that means there's no end of people who want him to commit to their cause. But hey, it's not like he gets asked to play every benefit show on the planet, right?

"No," says Morello with a laugh. "Probably just 85 percent of the benefit shows on the planet."

There's a proud tradition of radical politics in rock music, but there's also an unfortunate tradition of bland politics—the kind Phil Ochs (and later Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon) sang about in "Love Me, I'm a Liberal." Morello's career flies in the face of all the empty-mouthpiece grandstanding and waffling. Since his Rage days he's been taking his politics to the street (and sometimes, to jail), and he's only upped the ante since 2003, when he began touring as the Nightwatchman, a folkier singer/songwriter project that until recently was a one-man show. With Serj Tankian from System of a Down, he started the nonprofit Axis of Justice, an organization that connects musicians and fans with activist organizations.

Now a parent of two children under 2, the 47-year-old Morello has had to curtail what he self-deprecatingly calls his "Nightwatchman do-gooding" somewhat. But it was important to him to be a part of the No Nukes Benefit at Shoreline on Aug. 7, which will raise money for Musicians United for Safe Energy (M.U.S.E.) and Japan disaster relief. The lineup also includes Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, the Doobie Brothers, Jason Mraz and others.

The history of M.U.S.E. dates back to 1979, when the group was founded by Browne, Raitt, Graham Nash and John Hall (who was elected to Congress in 2006 and will speak at this week's show). Six months after the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania in March 1979, they put together a series of shows at Madison Square Garden, culminating in a rally in Battery Park City that drew close to 200,000 people. Besides the founders, the Doobie Brothers are another link to M.U.S.E.'s history, having played at the 1979 shows. Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Carly Simon were among the other artists who performed at the original shows.

"I'm a fan of the other artists performing, and I was asked by them. And I was a big fan of the original shows," says Morello of his reason for signing on. "I like the idea of connecting generations of musical activists. It was an honor to be asked, and I think it's a very important cause. Especially in light of the nuclear scare, it seemed very timely."

In a striking parallel, the new M.U.S.E. benefit comes six months after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March that led to the meltdown of multiple reactors at Fukushima I nuclear power plant in Japan. Morello minces no words in condemning the nuclear-power system that allowed the disaster to happen.

"When the stewardship of the planet is in the hands of profiteers, that kind of a tragedy is inevitable," he says. "It's not a system under which protection and care of humanity and the environment comes first. Making money comes first."

Though the scale and nuclear aspects set the Japan catastrophe apart, Morello doesn't find it all that different in principle than the San Bruno pipeline explosions here last year, which killed eight people. After an investigation, PG&E admitted it may have installed the pipeline improperly.

"It's substandard because it's more cost-effective to be substandard, therefore the profits will be higher at the end of the day," he says. "That's the inherent logic, whether it's nuclear or coal mine disasters."

This is the kind of smart and impassioned political thinking that Morello is known for (he often jokes that he's the other Harvard-educated, half-Kenyan guy from Illinois, in reference to the roots he shares with Barack Obama). His M.U.S.E. appearance comes just as he seems to be busier than ever, having just released the Union Town EP (with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting labor causes) and dropping a new Nightwatchman album, Worldwide Rebel Song, at the end of this month—his first with a full band.

"I feel much more comfortable now integrating my electric guitar playing with my folky singer/songwriting. This will be the 14th album of my career, and the ninth record since Rage Against the Machine. So at this point, I feel comfortable doing anything I want to do," he says."

Speaking of Rage, the group reunited in 2007 after breaking up in 2000. Just last month, they established the first L.A. Rising festival, like Coachella or Lollapalooza, but with an activist bent.

"I think the years apart were healthy," he says of the reformed Rage. "It allowed me to really stretch myself as an artist, with Audioslave and Street Sweeper Social Club and especially with the Nightwatchman. But then to be able to return as friends, and have the opportunity to play that music for an audience again."



Sunday, 7:30pm; $19.50-$99.50

Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View

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