When I walked into The Entry for The Nightwatchman show last night, the place was packed with what most Minnesotans would recognize as The Wellstone Nation. Ike Reilly, an Irish-American protest singer from Libertyville, Illinois, with a rabid local following, was onstage warming up the troops. He usually plays with his band, The Assassination, but tonight he was playing St. John to The Nightwatchman’s Messiah. “It feels like a Catholic White Mass in here,” he joked. It was met with smug laughter that sounded like crackling tinder. There was a union-hall energy to the place, so much so that before The Nightwatchman “rose from the crypt,” as Reilly put it, I remembered Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who before receiving a sentimental Irish Nationalist speech thought, “Noble words coming. Look out.”
The Nightwatchman is Tom Morello, the Harvard-educated, African-American lead guitar player for Rage Against the Machine, the great leftist metal band, and Audioslave, the great cash-in-your-chips all-star band. He’s earned a deserved reputation as an innovator by making his guitar sound like a hip-hop turntablist, making it scratch and squeal in ways never heard before (although since ceaselessly imitated). As The Nightwatchman however, he was touring an acoustic socialist protest album, twelve rebel songs in the tradition of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. The record is okay; Morello’s baritone evokes a young Leonard Cohen, and the music itself is straightforward and driving, but the lyrics can be laughably bad. For instance, on the title track, “One Man Revolution”: “On the streets of Havana/I got hugged and kissed/At the Playboy Mansion/I wasn't on the list.” So sad, Nightwatchman.
But live it’s a different deal. Live, the lyrics can chill; such as on “Flesh Shapes the Day: “Yeah, I support my troops/They wave black flags/They wear black masks.” And The Nightwatchman’s guitar is a powerful weapon (as he says in “Maximum Firepower”: “this machine here kills fascists too”). Even unplugged. He hits each chord with authority, malice even. The highlight was a nasty blues-guitar-and-harmonica version of Rage’s “Guerilla Radio,” and he had the nineteen-year-old kids in the pit pogo-ing to a hip-hop take on the “uncensored” version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
But ultimately, it was just too much. Standing there in the crowd, watching The Nightwatchman compare himself to Christ on at least five songs, watching the coffee shop kids raise their fists in solidarity as their leader urged them to take back the People’s Republic of Minneapolis, well, it was hard to take seriously. It’s difficult to predict how long the collective rage could possibly last. The guy can definitely fire up a crowd and sell T-shirts, but once The Nightwatchman’s fans walk out of the club, once they’re outside of The Nightwatchman’s comfortable embrace . . . well, to paraphrase my favorite antifascist comic book: who’s watching for the watchman?