With Rage Against the Machine back on ice for the time being, it was only a matter of time before Tom Morello would have to plug back in and, well, rage a little. As the Nightwatchman, he gets to dabble in Woody Guthrie-inspired acoustic tunes, but the siren song of electric guitars and big riffs must be too strong to avoid.
As a warm-up for their opening slot on the impending Jane's Addiction/Nine Inch Nails tour — which kicks off Friday in Florida (Rolling Stone will have a full report) — Morello's new band, Street Sweeper Social Club, played a surprise gig opening for the Roots last night at New York's Highline Ballroom, engaging a sold-out crowd that was there more to dance than to mosh. Morello and crew — featuring frontman Boots Riley of Oakland hip-hop act the Coup — took the stage in matching black coats with red trim and shades and kicked into the staccato, guitar-heavy "Fight! Smash! Win!," complete with some shredding from Morello without his trademark effects array.
But he still had plenty of tricks up his sleeve, including a guitar solo on "Somewhere in the World It's Midnight" that consisted of him rapid-fire strumming his guitar's G string while de-tuning it to change notes instead of by fretting. He also pulled out the technique that might be as synonymous with his name as finger-tapping is with Eddie Van Halen, going into a carefully-orchestrated toggle-switch frenzy to open "100 Little Curses." The biggest gasp of recognition came when the band hit the chorus on its cover of M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," substituting massive power chords and crashing drums instead of the original track's gunshots, making the song as hard-edged as its lyrics.
Street Sweeper Social Club might finally answer the question, "What if you actually had a really good rapper in a hard rock band?" instead of merely a capable one, as Riley's smooth delivery keeps things from being meatheaded, but he can still use it to build the energy in the room when he needs to; multiple songs ended with vocal crescendos not dissimilar from Rage's "Killing in the Name" before blowing up into power-riffing fury. In fact, the overall Rage-ness of some of the tunes is maybe enough to make one wonder if these songs were originally bound for the RATM reunion album that was rumored last year and never emerged, but Riley is no Zack de la Rocha imitator, and the band is its own foot-stomping, teeth-gnashing beast.
"Fight! Smash! Win!"
"Somewhere in the World It's Midnight"
"100 Little Curses"
"Nobody Moves (Til We Say Go)"