SXSW: Tom Morello, A Vigilant And Emphatic Nightwatchman

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Besides Music World Gospel, New West Records is probably the most locally connected sub-major record label, and owner/partial Houstonian George Fontaine has long worn his heart on his sleeve about local music in general and recent New West additions the Wild Moccasins, Robert Ellis, Buxton and Grandfather Child in particular.

But the New West SXSW party Thursday afternoon at Threadgill's World Headquarters was a reminder to those of us Houstonians who sometimes forget that the label's scope is a little broader than just the Bayou City. We're not saying our guys don't, but some New West other artists really do think music can still change the world - or at least they're a lot more vocal about it.

Chief among them is Tom Morello, who as his latest alter ego the Nightwatchman turned in the best set of folk-laced hard rock I've seen in many moons. True, I haven't been to that many shows in the past six months, but Morello's hour was easily worth skipping Springsteen for.

In fact, there was an early rumor that the Boss would come by for a song or two, but it sounded like he had too much rehearsing for what was about to happen to make it. Along with everyone else Springsteen loves (Eric Burdon, Win Butler, The Low Anthem, Jimmy Cliff), Morello did eventually join him onstage at ACL Live, and dedicated a cover of Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad" - which bore more than a passing resemblance to Audioslave's hard-rock power ballad "Like a Stone" - to his friend.

God bless him, Morello's songs can be a little - oh, what's the word? - didactic. Music sounds like almost a military exercise to Morello, which would at least explain the paramilitary/Boy Scout uniforms of his three-piece "Freedom Fighter Orchestra."

But there's power to the people, and there's "Arm the Homeless," and it was great to see the guitar that launched so many Rage Against the Machine riffs back in action, if not better than ever, on Thursday's opener "It Begins Tonight" and later on a few bars of Rage's "Sleep Now In the Fire."

But for those of us not storming the Occupy SXSW barricades, Morello gets away with it because like Joe Strummer and Billy Bragg before him, his music is so urgent and passionate it can't help but lend creedence to his lyrics. In other words, no matter your politics, it fucking rocks.

Other songs highlighted Morello's more acoustic side, with a distinct whiff of the Clash on "Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine" and some fine flat-picking on Ben Harper co-write "Save the Hammer for the Man." Ever the vigilant folkie, he acknowledged Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Springsteen before bringing up dozens of people onstage (including Shooter Jennings) for singalong cover of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land"

Obviously Morello very much believes his machine kills fascists too. It's a good thing there weren't any around Threadgill's Thursday.

Of the other New Westers I saw, the Mastersons reaffirmed, for the third time since I saw them open for Steve Earle last year, that their upcoming New West debut Birds Fly South may be the best album the Jayhawks never made. Ponderosa, from Georgia, continues growing less rootsy and more spacier - more like My Morning Jacket, except maybe now quite as good.

And as for our Houston kids, Buxton turned out to be a more than acceptable substitute for skipping the Shins at Auditorium Shores later in the evening. The Wild Moccasins, meanwhile, have broken out the dream-pop on the hi-fi, debuting a new batch of songs (new to me, anyway) that took a soothing, melodious handful of cues from early-'90s lovelies like Lush and Stereolab.

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