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`Tell Us the Truth' tour rages against global media

While many of today's rock stars are signing on with corporate sponsors, the "Tell Us the Truth" tour is sponsored by the AFL-CIO, defenders of America's union movement. It's an immediate sign that "Tell Us the Truth" is unlike any other tour this year.

Its caravan of acts -- featuring Tom Morello (of Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine), Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, and Lester Chambers -- has come together to slam "corporate globalization" and "media consolidation" for its effect on the average citizen, says Morello.

And he's proud of it.

"There hasn't been an explicitly political tour since 1988's Amnesty International tour," says Morello, referring to the "Human Rights Now!" aggregation that included Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Sting, Tracy Chapman, Peter Gabriel, and Youssou N'Dour.

Expect some ranting and raving -- and no doubt some good music -- when the "Truth" tour visits the Berklee Performance Center on Sunday night, starting at 7.

"We'll play some solo stuff, but we'll also play some things together," Morello says of the program, which also includes Jill Sobule and Janeane Garofalo as host.

"We're drawing all kinds of people, ranging from Audioslave fans to 60-year-old steelworkers," says Morello. "Not everyone will agree with the opinions expressed, but it's a healthy discourse."

And no, none of the presidential candidates has cozied up to this tour. "None of them has reached out, but we're not endorsing any candidate, either," says Morello. "What we are endorsing is a wider span of ideas in the marketplace. And that's a nonpartisan issue."

"It's been a blast so far," says Earle. "Plus, I've also met some really cool activists along the way."

Corporate control of the media appears to be the number one concern of the performers.

"A few massive corporations will soon control all we see on TV and print and radio," says the Harvard-educated Morello. "There's a very narrow number of gatekeepers, and that can be very destabilizing for a democracy. Ten years ago, 50 corporations controlled the major media outlets. Now it's down to six," he says. "And everybody loses except the super-rich at the top."

"Media consolidation has already finished radio off," says Earle, "because it's so hard now to break a new band. And this affects the quality of art we get. . . . I don't have a problem with the pop tarts that radio plays, but there are far fewer edgy artists. A Tom Waits, Rickie Lee Jones, or Randy Newman might have no place today."

Earle is also disturbed by the consolidation taking place within the record industry, where big labels are swallowing smaller ones every day, it seems. And because a few labels are so big (and so driven by profits), they don't have any patience with developing bands through the course of several albums, as they once did.

"R.E.M. didn't break big until their fourth record," says Earle. "I don't think that could happen today. Now it's one record and you're out if it doesn't sell. We're going to have to find other ways to sell music."

Earle has made the choice to go with Artemis Records, an independent label run by longtime activist Danny Goldberg. "Artemis is funded privately, so he doesn't have to answer to stockholders," Earle says.

The "Tell Us the Truth" tour was initiated by Bragg and by Jenny Toomey of the Future of Music Coalition. There's a website (tell and Morello, who is performing under the name of the Nightwatchman, has his own Internet site called nightwatch What's the Nightwatchman thing all about? "I endeavor to be the black Woody Guthrie," says Morello, who these days performs new songs on acoustic guitar.

"The bottom line is that the music on this tour is really, really good," says Earle. "The music is pretty off the hook."

Club soirees: Paula Kelley Orchestra at Johnny D's: Kelley, who has been part of the Boston bands the Drop Nineteens and Boy Wonder, is off on a marvelous new tangent these days. Her nine-piece "orchestra," which includes strings and horns, helps her depart from her indie-pop background to embrace Norah Jones/Burt Bacharach territory, in which she seems quite comfortable. Despite the softer musical textures, she's still a crisp writer, and the combination is entertaining. She also performs at T.T. the Bear's tomorrow. Christian McNeill at Toad: The dynamic McNeill, who also fronts Hybrasil, finishes his Tuesday residency at Toad next week. Try to catch him, because he's blowing people away not just with an outstanding band (Jimmy Ryan on mandolin, Andrew Mazzone on bass, and Billy Beard on drums), but with songs from the heart.Bits and pieces: New inductees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, announced yesterday, are Prince, George Harrison, Jackson Browne, the Dells, Bob Seger, Traffic, and ZZ Top. . . . The Orpheum Theatre is thriving with a current streak of 17 shows in 26 nights. Phil Lesh & Friends start a three-night run on Sunday, followed by Godsmack on Wednesday and Friday. . . . Barry Savenor's uniquely entertaining Polaroid snapshots of himself with various pop celebrities is on exhibit at the New England School of Art and Design at 75 Arlington St. . . . Tonight: Saves the Day at Avalon, Rosalie Sorrels at the First Church, Congregational (in Cambridge), Patty Larkin at Capo's in Lowell. . . . Tomorrow: The Push Stars at the Middle East Downstairs, Kill Hannah at Axis, Tyler Hilton at Boston Rocks in Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and Toni Lynn Washington at the Sea Note in Hull. . . . Sunday: Jay-Z at the Tsongas Arena, and Joey Molland (of Badfinger) is joined by Jon Butcher and Friends at Rain in Malden.

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