Rock Against the TPP - Live in Denver (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Rock Against the TPP

Live in Denver (2016)

live show

The Rock Against the TPP tour made its first stop in Denver as Tom Morello’s Firebrand Records joined forces with political non-profit Fight for the Future for a cross between a concert and a political rally designed to both protest the Trans Pacific Partnership and to educate concert goers on what the TPP is and why it’s a huge problem for people around the world. It was the political equivalent of wrapping a dog’s pill in bacon to make it more palatable and, while it had its clunky moments, it succeeded in making the medicine go down.

The show was free, which should be a big draw when you have one of the greatest guitarists of all time as the headliner for your bill, but it did warn on the website that it was first come first serve. I got there ridiculously early to make certain I got in, and it seemed like that might not have been necessary as the venue never got that crowded, despite the show being free, and I doubt anyone got turned away at the door for the show being too full. As we waited for the show to begin there were about a dozen different organizations that came up and down the line asking us to sign petitions. There was also pair of counter-protestors with the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce who held up signs encouraging people to “Read Before You Sign” (which is code for “Don’t sign anything that hurts corporate interests”).

An hour before the concert began there was supposed to be a big political rally out in front of the venue, The Summit Music Hall, as a lead-in to the concert. The problem was that, while almost the entire day was bright and sunny, the skies chose to open up and dump rain on us right as the rally was about to start. I managed to be far enough up front to be able to catch shelter under an awning over the front entrance, but many who were waiting in line were not as lucky as I was as they were just drenched in rain. Some people near me asked the organizers if they still intended to hold the rally outside, and we were told they were discussing that right now. In the end, they decided to let the rain die down for a little bit and then hold the rally outside anyway. The problem was that the rain never actually stopped, but instead continued on with only brief pauses, but the organizers decided to take one of these brief pauses as a sign that the rain was done and they plowed forward with a rally that you can guarantee was seen by zero passing pedestrians as nobody in their right mind was outside except for those of us waiting for the concert to start. Since nobody passing by saw the rally, it was a rather pointless exercise in getting a bunch of concertgoers wet, as everything we saw on the stage was little more than a small preview of what was to come once we got inside the venue: a smattering of political speakers from various different organizations and with various levels of awkward stage presence and appearances from the musical artists playing various protest anthems.

Once we got inside professional superhero sidekick, Evangeline Lily, who is apparently very active in this cause, hosted our show. She introduced the bands with the awkwardness of your aunt at Thanksgiving talking about a Katy Perry song she heard on the radio the other day that she actually really liked, and overall, much like on Lost, Evangeline Lily was the least interesting part of the show. The first few acts of the show were short, mini-sets from little-known artists that were signed to Tom Morello’s record label, Firebrand Records, usually only about 3 songs or so a piece, and most of them with just themselves and an acoustic guitar. Not just because of the nature of the show, but also because Firebrand Records is specifically designed to promote politically conscious music, the showcase of Firebrand Records artists was first and foremost a political showcase. Lia Rose started things out with some 60’s style political folk, followed by a performance by the label’s co-founder Ryan Harvey, whose political folk came off reminiscent of some of Bright Eyes’ more folksy and political music. Rapper Son of Nun proved that politics and not genre is what unites the Firebrand Records family as he contrasted the two folk performances before him with some remarkable socially conscious hip-hop.

Following the Firebrand Records artists came the brief performance from Evan Greer, one of the organizers from Fight for the Future who had put together the tour and who was a political folk artist in her own right, and who came off as a clever sort of political Mountain Goats act. While I can appreciate a good acoustic performance from time to time, my mouth was watering for some harder music by this point. The next artist up after Greer was Latin music artist Taina Asili, whose set I largely missed as I had taken this opportunity to hit the bar, at which point I was inundated with more activists who were shoving petitions in my face. A cis male activist paused for a moment in the midst of shoving petitions into the hands of drunken attendees to show off just how progressive he really was as he instructed the female bartender to smile.

Finally, it was time for Downtown Boys, who were brilliant! Victoria Ruiz was ferocious and eloquent. She didn’t sound like any punk frontman or frontwoman before her, but carrid herself with the confidence of a woman who knows that she's taken on the mantle as one of the most important frontwomen of the new generation of punk bands and that she’s done it entirely on her own terms. She preaches between her songs with the fervor of a televangelist but with the authority of a professor.

Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit of hip-hop group Flobots were up next and, while most of the country remembers Flobots as a one-hit wonder for their 2008 hit “Handlebars,” in Denver they’re known as not only one of the most important local hip-hop artists in town, but also passionate local activists. They were always billed specifically as Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit of the Flobots, as there are three musicians who make up the rest of the group and thus they chose not to bill themselves as Flobots. It was an odd set, where they did a few of their own songs, and previewed one new one, but mostly just teamed up with members of other bands and led the crowd in chants that they use for local protests, including one that they made up out of an old Mr. Rogers song. Their entire set had a distinct air of two guys who only made loose plans for their set and were sure they would figure something out once they got up on stage.

While the two lead vocalists of Flobots seemed to consider it false advertising to call themselves the Flobots without the rest of their band members, Justin Sane and Chris #2 of Anti-Flag did not feel the same way, as they were the only two members of the band who played for what was billed as an Anti-Flag acoustic set. Their set was exactly what you would expect it to be, and focused on songs that are easier to play on acoustic guitars like “Turncoat” and “1 Trillion Dollar$,” but a few songs were ones that I never would have imagined would work as acoustic songs and which surprised me in terms how well they worked with just two acoustic guitars. “A Fabled World” in particular turned from a hard and fast punk anthem to a surprisingly sweet ballad. The only questionable decision in terms of converting a song to acoustic was “Die for Your Government,” the band’s perennial live closer that should probably have just been saved for when they had some electric guitars and a distortion pedal. Watching Anti-Flag acoustic is kind of like what the Nirvana unplugged in New York concert would have sounded if Kurt played all the songs people had expected him to and smiled more. It started to occur to me that Anti-Flag have started to become the safe, straight-laced boys next door of political punk. I mean, they are as punk and as radical as ever, but they're as much of those two things as you can be while still being someone you could introduce to your grandparents.

Finally came Tom Morello, performing some of his solo work from his project The Nightwatchman, which I admit I didn’t know much about before this show. It’s somewhat eclectic in what it pulls from, but for the most part the project stays in the realm of old-fashioned hard rock with some classic Morello style guitar riffs to make the sound really pop. Morello was always the most talented member of any of his bands, which is saying something because both Rage and Audioslave were made up entirely of very talented people, but somehow Morello shined through in those bands, sometimes even overshadowing the frontmen a bit. Thus it’s only natural for him to take the lead in his own band.

There was an odd moment where he made an unusual request of the audience to stay especially quiet for him to play a very soft, delicate song in tribute to a friend that had passed away, and promised the audience that if they promised to stay quiet it would be nothing but heavy metal hits once he finished this one particular song. I found it strange as I’ve never heard an artist make such a request; most artists usually just count on being able to grab the audience’s attention with their performance. Perhaps this was a more personal situation than most and he couldn’t really emotionally handle the thought of being interrupted, which I can understand. However his promise seemed to be an outright lie as nothing that followed was a “heavy metal hit.” Sure, he played some of his patented metal riffs, but they weren’t really metal songs otherwise. One song he played at this point, for example, was “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” but not the version that Rage Against the Machine did, but rather something more like the Springsteen original with some Morello-style riffs in the background. A good performance, yes, but I would never call Springsteen metal. (It also had the distinction of being the second cover of Springsteen that night, the first being Downtown Boys’ cover of “Dancing in the Dark,” which Ruiz introduced with one of her brilliantly fervent speeches about how the song is about not being afraid of the dark, and tying that into the fear of “darkness” in general and how that relates to white supremecy.)

Instead of having an encore, Morello and company just refused to leave the stage until the very last minute they were allowed to be up there. He invited every artist who had performed that night to come up onto the stage and as a group they did about 3-5 songs in a row, each of which he announced as being their “last song.” This included such things as a hard rock rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with the lyrics simply replaced with the words “Solidarity forever!,” and Lia Rose leading the stage in the classic union song “Which Side Are You On?” Finally the show ended with the entire stage singing “This Land is Your Land,” which was preceded by Morello explaining how the song is much more radical than your elementary school taught you it was.

In the end, Rock Against the TPP was a big travelling circus with a lot of moving parts, and in that sort of setup you shouldn’t be surprised to find that not every part of the show works as perfectly as you wanted it to. But the final product was strong enough that you can hardly judge the experience by its weakest moments. It’s truly remarkable that it went off as smoothly as it did considering how much they had to pack in, and their precision meant that there was very little wait time for setup between bands which was a welcome change from most concert-going experiences. The show educated a lot of people between sets about a very important issue, and allowed a lot of people to have fun at a free show in the process. You can’t beat the quality of this show at the cost of nothing, and the cause they’re fighting for is a worthy one. I encourage you to research the TPP yourself and see what you can do at, and if you’re lucky enough to have Rock Against the TPP rolling through your town, I suggest you check it out.