"What's past is past, but the future is unwritten," Tom Morello declared last night at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles, opening a benefit concert to help defeat Proposition 32, a California ballot measure that opponents say will strip the ability of unions to support candidates and influence elections across the state.
As a presidential debate unfolded a thousand miles away in Denver, Morello and headliners Crosby, Stills and Nash performed for a largely union audience to battle another local issue with national implications, not unlike last year's Wisconsin law that curtailed collective bargaining for public employees. Morello appeared at protests there as well, as he did at various Occupy protests across the country.
During Morello's half-hour set Wednesday as the Nightwatchman, CS&N joined him for a spirited reading of the uncensored version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," which includes the questioning, rarely sung line, "As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/ Is this land made for you and me?" Morello's 89-year-old mother, led by the hand to the stage by Graham Nash, sung along with them by the microphone.
Backstage earlier, Morello told Rolling Stone that the California ballot measure "is another of the brushfire wars in this ongoing class warfare assault of the ruling class on working families. Stopping Prop. 32 is a crucial fight to keep dignity and justice in the workplace."
Morello, a member of Musicians Local 47 for more than two decades, said he was invited to open the show by CS&N, and hoped to help counteract "the subterfuge and the dust thrown in the eyes through television commercials [that] is tremendously misleading."
He added, "My twin responsibilities these days are raising babies and raising hell."
At the opening of his set, Morello stood alone onstage and strummed through his "Union Song" with locomotive force, stomping a defiant beat. On his guitar was scrawled, "Whatever It Takes." Soon after came a troubled "Save the Hammer for the Man," his collaboration with Ben Harper, with guitarist Carl Restivo taking Harper's vocal parts, as Morello took a speedy, Spanish guitar solo.
The set then shifted into a harder-rocking "The Road I Must Travel" and Bruce Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," introduced by Morello as "a song written by the only Boss worth listening to." He picked up an electric guitar and unfurled the spasms of melody and noise that have made the song his own in recent years, colliding bits of Jimi Hendrix and Public Enemy's Bomb Squad. The standing ovation that followed was the least surprising part.
Closing the night, Crosby, Stills and Nash launched into "Carry On," Stephen Stills stepping away from the band's three-part harmonies to rip open the first of several searing guitar windouts. Crosby stood alone in the spotlight to pluck a cascading acoustic melody on "Déjà Vu," followed by a harmonica solo from Nash and others from each member of the five-piece backing band.
Stills led a stripped-down cover of "The Girl from the North Country" by "old weird Bob" Dylan, and Crosby and Nash sang the spectral love ballad "Guinnevere," with Crosby's son James Raymond on keyboards.
The veteran folk-rock trio closed the night with a series of songs tied to another era of protest, from a jazzy "Wooden Ships" to Crosby's wailing freak anthem "Almost Cut My Hair." The band's encore had Stills leading the band through his Buffalo Springfield classic "For What It's Worth," as fans rose to shout back the lyrics, before closing with a hopeful "Teach Your Children," sending the union members home and ready to fight another day.