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`Truth' tour puts its message in the music

Multi-act concert tours tend to be booked by genre, with consideration given to how well each act musically fits with the others surrounding it. For the "Tell Us the Truth" tour, which made its 10th of 11 stops at a near sold-out Berklee Performance Center Sunday night, the link was an ideological one. Headliners Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, and the Nightwatchman (former Rage Against the Machine and current Audioslave member Tom Morello in his Johnny Cash-Leonard Cohen guise) swing from the left. Boston University professor emeritus and longtime activist Howard Zinn set the tone by slamming "a little gang of people who have taken over this country." And MC/comic Janeane Garofalo dryly noted President Bush's "lack of intellectual curiosity . . . which is not so good for a president."

The kind of music being played and the kind of messages these people are imparting are outside mainstream programming and thought; it's important to see there is a constituency for this kind of agitprop. And the night wasn't just a bash-Bush fest; it was a long evening of exquisite, powerful music that spanned the blues, folk, quirky pop, hip-hop, alternative country, and brash punk. Most of it was acoustic, or low-amplified electric, though by the everybody-on-stage encores of "People Get Ready" and the Chambers Brothers' '60s classic "Time Has Come Today" the place was rocking. Righteously.

The chat between songs often dovetailed with the songs themselves -- and occasionally not. Morello, a Cubs fan, introduced a song he'd written after the Cubs playoff defeat called "God Help Us All," but said, "I can't play it because it makes me too sad." Instead, accompanied by acoustic guitar, he played a bittersweet song about slipping from shadow to shadow "in the garden of Gethsemane" and followed with "No One Left," which drew parallels between losses at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and subsequent war widows in Baghdad. He sang in a rich baritone, employed a lot of fire imagery, and his melodic, clear-voiced songs were a delight.

The other "surprise," if you will, was the power of Boots Riley's sinuous hip-hop and poetry. The leader of the controversial group the Coup rhymed about the downtrodden and drug-addicted, brought humor and anger to "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO" and made "Wear Clean Drawers," a song for his young daughter, sweet and furious.

The whole company began the three hour and 15 minute show with a set of blues, featuring the vocals of the Chambers Brothers' Lester Chambers. Jill Sobule contributed some cutesy pop songs drenched in irony. Steve Earle brought a gravitas to the scene, drawing upon historical contexts (manifest destiny, the Civil War as fought by an Irishman who saw it as a class war, and, of course, "the American Taliban" John Walker Lindh in "John Walker's Blues"). Somber, moving songs spiked with comments from Earle such as, "All wars are fought about money -- the spin is you have to make [soldiers] believe they have a reason to fight in that war." Bragg, sporting a military-style uniform with a patch honoring the late Clash leader Joe Strummer, addressed the larger issues that were the cornerstone of the tour's political thrust: media consolidation (both broadcast and print), opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas policy, American policy in Iraq. Bragg said the issue was no longer communism vs. capitalism but "capitalism and accountability." He addressed gay issues in "Sexuality," reworked "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward" ("the axis of evil/smart bombs in the hands of dumb people"), addressed the balance of power between shareholders and workers in "N.P.W.A." and sang a new song, "The Price of Oil," which tied the war to the fossil fuel.

The tour will be over by the time you read this. But backstage, Bragg was asked if he'd mount something similar next year. "Are we going to do this again?" he asked Earle, who was quietly reading a magazine. Earle looked up, thought for a moment, and said, "I would do this again."

("Tell Us the Truth Tour; Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, the Nightwatchman (Tom Morello), Jill Sobule, Lester Chambers, and Boots Riley; MC: Janeane Garofalo; At Berklee Performance Center, Sunday.)

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