Tom Morello Fights the Power

Tom Morello plays Hard Halloween at Red Rocks on October 26.
Tom Morello plays Hard Halloween at Red Rocks on October 26. Christopher Victorio
Legend has it that Rage Against the Machine was founded after guitarist Tom Morello posted an ad seeking musicians equally into Black Sabbath and Public Enemy.

The band, which hasn’t released an album of original songs since 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles and hasn’t played a show since 2011, inherited the revolutionary musical torch handed down from the likes of the Clash, Bob Marley and even Woody Guthrie. Rage's anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist songs provided the soundtrack for protests against globalization in the ’90s and against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and Republican and Democratic national conventions in the early 2000s.

Mixing raw, explosive funk metal with the militant poetry of singer-rapper Zack de la Rocha, Rage garnered millions of fans and made rock — and political — history.

However, it was on 2018's The Atlas Underground — a collaboration with everyone from Bassnectar and Knife Party to Marcus Mumford, Portugal. The Man and members of Wu-Tang Clan — that Morello’s vision of mixing Sabbath riffs and earth-shaking political hip-hop was fully realized. Through it all, his iconic guitar — which can sound in turns like Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi's, a Kaoss Pad or a turntable — acts as a foundation for creative takes on tasteful rap rock with a much more infectious, clubby vibe than anything in Rage’s catalogue.

“Artists collaborating from different genres can provide exciting and surprising results," Morello says today. "I always self-identified as the DJ in Rage Against the Machine and drew heavily from both hip-hop and EDM music in my guitar playing.”

At 55, Morello — a Harlem native who was ranked number forty on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list — has gone through big changes. When he plays Red Rocks with electronica producer Gramatik and others at a Halloween party on October 26, he'll play under his given name rather than the Nightwatchman moniker he used on four solo albums between 2007 and 2011. 

“When I perform under my own name, I feel free to perform all of the songs I have been involved in throughout my career," he explains. "Rage, Audioslave, Prophets [of Rage], Nightwatchman, and even Bruce Springsteen."

Morello says diverse lineups, like the one he's playing at Red Rocks, are what society needs these days.

"Gramatik and I worked together on my The Atlas Underground record," he says. "We did a kick-ass song with Gary Clark Jr., and I’d be very surprised if we didn’t drop that jam at the [Red Rocks] show.”

Morello, who promises huge bass drops and shredding guitar on the Rocks, considers Halloween “a very special time of year” and says he’s “been known to dress up as [KISS guitarist] Ace Frehley, but might surprise you with something else.”

Coming to Denver as another presidential election looms, Morello looks back on playing the Denver Coliseum with Rage Against the Machine in August 2008 as part of protests against the Democratic National Convention. He and the band, along with thousands of Rage fans, marched toward the convention with anti-war veterans who were demanding to meet with then-candidate Barack Obama.

“That was an incredible day,” Morello says. “I remember a dramatic standoff between veterans who demanded entry and the security staff that was denying them. It was a historic moment. I believe that a soldier who stands up against an unjust war is the most courageous kind of soldier.

“I’ve always been sympathetic to veterans’ issues," Morello adds, "but it was through my friendship with Tomas Young that I really began to understand the issues facing the veterans' community. Tomas Young was paralyzed after five days in Iraq and went on to become a courageous anti-war advocate. The documentary Body of War is about him, and Tomas chose a soundtrack featuring Rage and Nightwatchman songs. We became friends, and he introduced me to the activist veterans' community. He passed away a few years ago, which was a great loss for me personally and to our country.”

As for Morello's current political commitments, “I’ve never left the front lines," he says. “Over the course of my nineteen studio albums and the accompanying tours, fighting the power remains at the top of my list, with Marshall stacks blazing, as you will see at Red Rocks."

Hard Halloween, with Gramatik, Kayzo, Tom Morello, Ghastly and more takes place at 5 p.m. Saturday, October 26, at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Find tickets and more information at the Red Rocks website.
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Pittsburgh native Adam Perry is a cyclist, drummer and University of Pittsburgh and Naropa University alum. He lives in Boulder and has written for Westword since 2008.
Contact: Adam Perry