Tom Morello has decades of musical experience, but only late last year did he release an album (The Atlas Underground) under his own name. Since then, the veteran guitarist has taken his “The Atlas Underground Live” shows on the road across the U.S., including a stop at NYC’s Irving Plaza on May 14. The set traversed his many projects and collaborations, from Rage Against the Machine to Audioslave to Bruce Springsteen to his more recent solo material. Here are five things that stood out from the gig:
Man of the People
After a brief video intro, there was a sudden buzz in the crowd as the fans realized that Morello was actually kicking off his set on the floor. Leading with the recent track “Lead Poisoning,” Morello unleashed his infectious energy with a primal yell. The Atlas Underground featured so many guest stars (such as GZA and RZA on that first track played) that it remained to be seen if their physical absence would detract from the live performance. Morello’s magnetic stage presence made that an emphatic “no.” Whether he was pumping his fist or screaming during boisterous riffs, the guitarist showed he knew how to command the attention of the crowd even while saying (or singing) very little.
Part of this command was also due to top-notch, provocative visuals that backed up his set. Whether it was proclaiming “Nazi Lives Don’t Matter” or showcasing the Trump International Hotel logo next to a prison cell, Morello also brought his razor-sharp political messaging to the stage. During one powerful interstitial, a bunch of kids recited the line “I wish you’d just shut up and play guitar” before Morello delivered a rollicking rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” — a strong track to showcase how artists have the platform to speak out on socioeconomic issues.
At two points in the set, Morello ripped through medleys featuring some of his most famous songs. It was easy to see the crowd react to Rage Against the Machine cuts in these mixes, even if Zack de la Rocha’s vocals weren’t played. It’s a testament to just how iconic and heavy much of Morello’s RATM guitar work still is to this day — from the crushing opening riff of “Bulls on Parade” to the warbled beginning of “Testify.”
Morello did opt to keep in the late Chris Cornell’s vocals playing over the speakers for Audioslave’s “Cochise” and “Like a Stone,” with the crowd eagerly singing along to round out the first medley. But this wouldn’t be the only time Morello honored the memory of his former bandmate.
Keeping the Memory of Chris Cornell Alive
In the middle of the set, Morello emerged onstage with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder for two tracks, “Save the Hammer for the Man” and “The Garden of Gethsemane.” On the latter track, he explained that he wrote the song for Cornell and needed the room as quiet as possible: “Pin-drop silent, and it’s nothing but heavy metal bangers the rest of the way.” His voice sounded rough-hewn, with a folksy style not unlike that of Springsteen. As he reached the end of the track, he’d gotten his wish — the crowd was so hushed that you could still hear him singing barely above a whisper. At the outro (“Take my hand, down we go”), he actually swiveled away from the mic entirely, and you could catch his voice carrying throughout the room before the crowd let out a tremendous cheer.
Giving Power to the People
Morello ratcheted up the energy with “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” letting loose a screaming guitar solo as he twisted his tuning pegs while strumming. Afterwards, he invited the audience to join him onstage for the remainder of the set, on just two conditions: “Don’t step on my shit. If you throw a cell phone in my face, I’m gonna throw it.”
Soon the guitarist was mobbed by a crowd, including a little kid he gave a fist-bump. He swung the mic stand around for what he called “an old gospel standard,” the rip-roaring Rage Against the Machine track “Killing in the Name,” which pretty much instantaneously created a mosh pit and massive singalong. As the track soared to its climax with the iconic, anthemic line of “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” Morello pointed throughout the crowd with middle fingers raised. He was greeted by a sea of middle fingers around him.
Morello also brought his razor-sharp political messaging to the stage as he recently became the first musician to be named an ambassador for the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice as part of the tour.
To close out the set, he covered John Lennon’s “Power to the People.” From the floor to the stage to the balcony, the audience stood with fists raised, jumping up and down so vigorously that the floor buckled and the walls shook while Morello raised his guitar triumphantly over his head.