Tell Us the Truth Tour featuring Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, et al.
November 11, 2003, Royal Oak, Michigan
Tuesday evening’s Tell Us the Truth Tour stop at the Royal Oak Theatre simmered steadily with grassroots enthusiasm, and occasionally exploded into full-on anger and activism. It featured a few inspired musical moments, and even encouraged a few grizzled hippie holdouts to dig the largely a capella flow of an underground and erudite California MC. But while its message was made even more resonant by Veteran’s Day and Michigan’s contentious relationship with its principal industry, the night’s rabble rousing was permeated by a sense of dreadful resignation. Had the bastards already won?
Supported by its musicians and a coalition of unions and activist groups – including the AFL-CIO, Future of Music Coalition, MoveOn.org, and Common Cause – Tell Us the Truth aims to raise the public’s awareness of globalization, corporate consolidation, and the co-opting/kowtowing of media in the 21st century. Performers at the Michigan date included Lester Chambers (best known as a member of the Chambers Brothers, who penned the timeless 1968 hit “Time Has Come Today”), Mike Mills (who did nothing more than play a few notes on an electric piano), Tom Morello, Steve Earle, and Billy Bragg; Jill Sobule and Janeane Garofalo are slated to join Tell Us the Truth as it winds its way down the East Coast.
The show also features assorted consciousness-raising interspersed with the music. At Tuesday’s show, this spot was filled by a woman who held aloft the 9,000 page NAFTA agreement and a set of handcuffs. Despite Bragg’s flub of her name and affiliation, her diatribe against government plans to expand the landmark agreement into something called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAAA) was passionate and enlightening. But it was also tinged with a “Can you believe this shit?” attitude that was more soapbox than astute political argument. Pointing to the millions of Mexican farmers forced off their land in NAFTA’s wake cleverly expanded the normally American-centric argument against job loss. But her description of the workers’ plight as “getting fucked” was lazy and shortsighted. (Not as shortsighted as the jamoke who screamed “start the rock!” throughout her stump, but still.) Taken with the clutch of rickety Rock the Vote card tables in the theatre’s lobby, Tell Us the Truth’s vaunted aims seemed undercut by a lack of follow through. Somewhere in America, Veterans Day was being remembered with $2,000 checks and the hand clasping of puffy pink hands. As conservative coffers spilled over onto the deep pile, a ragtag group of rockers, activists, and enthusiastic supporters cheered each other’s well-meaning, yet possibly meaningless soapbox heroism.
Morello’s machine-raging activism is documented. But his method Tuesday evening was much more subtle. Performing as the Nightwatchman, “an artist of the people,” he stalked darkly through a stark set of acoustic numbers written specially for the Truth tour. Singing in a scratchy, dour baritone, Morello revealed his Nightwatchman to be a cynical savior, prone to seeing justice through his enemy’s eyes. In “Branding Iron,” he speaks in the voice of an unknown, everyday killer. “Walk down the street / From the convenience store / I’ve been keeping a secret / In my top dresser drawer.” Elsewhere he channeled the spirit of Woody Guthrie, striking at his acoustic guitar with a force not unlike his seizure-worthy solos for Rage. It was an impressive set, even moreso because the famously mouthy Morello mostly let his imagery do the preaching. You could see “House Up in Flames” and “Maximum Firepower” for miles down the blacktop, coming at you with fury – they didn’t need any “Bush is Bad” sloganeering to hit home.
If the Nightwatchman’s work was powerful in its understatement, rapper Boots Riley of Oakland, California’s Coup spoke viscerally and intelligently to brain, heart, and dancing shoe receptors. Beginning his set with a mindblowing a capella reading of the true-life poverty tale “Underdogs” (from the Coup’s 1998 release Steal This Album), the MC made Midwest hearts and minds stop and feel with lines like “whole family sleepin’ on futons / While you clippin’ coupons / eatin’ salad tryin’ to get full off the croutons” and “you just don’t know where the years went / Although every long shift feel like a year spent.” Joined by an understated bass player and Chambers on tambourine and vocals, Riley endeared himself and his levelheaded, yet realistic politics to a crowd that seemed unsure of his afro when he first strode across the stage. “Piss on Your Grave” – a funny fantasy about George Washington, graves, and slaves, but not necessarily in that order – even got a few aging hippie ponytails flipping.
While the lack of a true backing band didn’t mar Morello and Riley’s work, a little electrification and crashing percussion would have been nice to help pace out the sets from Steve Earle and Bragg. As headliner, the latter played for much longer than his counterpart. But it was Earle who turned in the stronger performance, since he so effortlessly mixed personality with pragmatism. He railed against Manifest Destiny, Saturn’s Michigan-Tennessee job crunch, and 19th century juvenile delinquents, but it was done with casual genius, instead of Bragg’s righteous breast beating. Sure, Bragg’s Fender charged up the proceedings with some raggedy amplification. But he seemed to stumble over whole phrases in his zeal to dis Bush and policy. Like the simplistic “we’re fucked” phraseology of the earlier speech, Bragg reduced his platform to easily digestible rallying cries that shed little light on the issues other than recognizing them as being really bad for us. He deserves respect for his career-spanning commitment to clobbering the stuffed shirts. But Bragg’s role in Tell Us the Truth seemed relegated to melodic cheerleading. Earle, on the other hand, seemed resigned to our quickly advancing fate. His entire set was colored darkly, both by shit happens humor and prescient social observation. Like Boots Riley, who got people thinking (and dancing) even as he busted the vitriolic “Ride the Fence,” Earle let his acoustic strumming cut into the larger neoconservative horde’s self-satisfied scheming, and rallied the sizable working man crowd right in front of him with effecting, visionary songcraft (“The Mountain” was a standout of his set). The times are quickly a-changin’ for the worse, that’s for sure. But Earle chose powerful music over lambasting message as his weapon, and was more succesful for it.
Tell Us the Truth will certainly aid in the fight against scary stuff like the FATAA, media consolidation, and sneaky backdoor politics. Ultimately, any note of activism helps write the protest songs. But in its immediate form, the event was misguided, because it forgot to tie the bootlaces before stomping around and making noise. The result was like a fading echo off of the gabled ceiling of the Royal Oak Theatre. As the night’s performers joined together onstage for a rousing encore of Chambers’ “Time Has Come Today,” I chatted with two disheveled fellows who’d followed the Truth from its recent stop in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s possible the “grassroots organizers” were trying to gather signatures for a series of referendums, but the duo’s mission was clouded behind their coke bottle spectacles. Their despondency at a battle already lost made the well-thumbed pamphlets they clutched to their ski jackets useless. It was disheartening to discover that the left’s message wasn’t resonating, even with two guys who had sacrificed personal hygiene for it. “Time has come today!” the singers sang to the incessant beat of a cowbell. And somewhere shadowy evil continued to creep from the hearts of calm, wealthy, and highly organized men.
The truth? We’re fucked.