Morello, in orange: "You have your hand on the wheel of history."
On Monday night, Wisconsin's week-long protest against Gov. Scott Walker got a soundtrack.
Five thousand people squeezed into the Monona Terrace exhibition hall to hear Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Wayne Kramer of the MC5 curse Walker's plan to undercut public employee unions. Walker got called every name in the book "motherfucker," "asshole" but the acoustic show was still overwhelmingly peaceful and positive. Morello and friends focused on marshaling the protesters' energy for continued resistance to the budget bill that would strip away unions' collective bargaining rights.
The predominantly young crowd batted around balloons and waved signs, some with defiant messages and others with almost self-mocking jokes. (My favorite: "Scott Walker Eats Kittens.") Union representatives began by speaking about the cause, but none of them more passionately than Morello, who came on next as the night's MC. In bright orange T-shirt and cap, he made a direct connection with the Cheesehead throng, taking on their cause as his own.
"This has been the most inspiring 24 hours of my life!" he said, to deafening cheers. "You have your hand on the wheel of history!"
The first performer was guitarist Ike Reilly, a friend of Morello's from Libertyville, Ill., who gave him a ride to Madison when his flight got cancelled. After Reilly's slightly unfocused set (I wasn't quite sure what a song about getting wasted had to do with anything), Boston's Street Dogs arrived to lead the crowd in rousing political sing-alongs like "Up the Union" and Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." But then they too ended with a song about getting wasted.
Focus, people, focus!
Kramer, with the words "Stay Free" painted on his guitar, had no trouble staying on message. He looked like a balding, bespectacled grandfather, but he sure didn't sound like one with his furious strumming. "I'm sick and tired of payin' these dues," he sang. "Finally getting' hip to these Republican blues!"
Finally, it was Morello's turn to attack his acoustic guitar, and he seized the moment. He immediately got fists pumping with an electrifying labor song: "The union men and women standing up and standing strong!" But his music wasn't all fire and brimstone this is an actual musician, interested in dynamics and delicacy. The contrasts made his agit-prop barnburners, like "Maximum Firepower," even more powerful.
Morello is a galvanizing figure funny one minute, fearsome the next. More than just mouthing slogans, he seems to have a sophisticated grasp of the issues. He gave the impression of someone who is fully capable of sparking a revolution based on economic justice.
Morello brought the audience onstage for his closer, "Worldwide Rebel Song," then concluded by saying, "Gov. Walker, here we come!"
If I were the governor, I'd be scared out of my wits.