Tom Morello: My best and worst gigs ever

Tom Morello has rocked a million faces...and sometimes three
Tom Morello has rocked a million faces...and sometimes three (Image credit: Josh Sanseri/Retna Ltd./Corbis)

Rage Against The Machine at Finsbury Park, 2010. Warning: NSFW!

Good times, bad times - we've all had our share. And if you're a musician, the same holds true for gigs. "I've had fantastic shows and a few that were truly pathetic," says Tom Morello, guitarist for Rage Against The Machine, Street Sweeper Social Club and a solo artist in his own right - he's The Nightwatchman. During a recent interview with MusicRadar, the axe star shared his highest of highs...and lowest of lows.

"My greatest gig ever would be a tie between two shows," says Morello. "The first one would have to be Rage Against The Machine last summer at Finsbury Park in London." The band, responding to a Facebook campaign to prevent 2009 X Factor winner Joe McElderry from reaching the top spot at Christmas with his cover of Miley Cyrus' The Climb, pledged to play a free show in the UK if enough people downloaded their song Killing In The Name.

Rage prevailed and made good on their promise, staging the concert on their own and covering all costs "right down to the last Porta Potty," says Morello. "It was amazing. To say it was out of control would be such an understatement. If you've ever seen a crowd lose their minds - picture Queen at Live Aid or pick your moment - this audience was double that and then some. What a spectacle! Totally insane."

Musically, Morello feels that Rage performed powerfully, but he says that "the real star was the audience. It was their gig. They made Rage number one, and they came to celebrate their victory. All we did was provide the soundtrack. I think the field was licensed for 45,000 people, but something like 90,000 people or maybe more eventually got in - the kids outside toppled the fences near the end of the concert. Basically, if you lived in or near London and you were into rock music, you were there."

Recalling the view from the stage, Morello likens it to an "out-of-body experience. Every beat, every guitar was like pouring sugar on an ant hill. I never saw a crowd get that physical. Imagine watching your team win the World Series or the World Cup - but times it by 10."

Sharing the number one spot for greatest gig ever in Morello's world is the Nightwatchman set he performed in Hamburg, Germany to protest the 2007 G8 Summit. "When I got there, the town was under marshall law," he says. "There had been fighting in the streets between anarchists and the cops. The whole scene was right out of the movie 28 Days."

At one point, the guitarist didn't know if he would even make it to land, much less the gig. He and his small crew had to commandeer a fishing boat and sneak their way through a flotilla of armed police ships outside the city. "It was pretty wild," says Morello. "There were huge fires on the shore, with the cops and the anarchists battling in the streets…and here comes The Nightwatchman!"

As the only US musician asked to play the G8 protest concert, Morello says that he felt a duty "to represent people in the States who believe that the world shouldn't be by, of and for the corporations. The crowd was very appreciative of what I did. I spent some time with the anarchists, played my set, and then at nightfall we snuck back through the flotilla and made it to Berlin. All in all, a good day's work for The Nightwatchman."

But there's always a flipside, and when it comes to naming his worst gig ever, Morello claims that a less than stellar night in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, with his pre-Rage band Lock Up, stands out.

"We were on tour in a van," he says. "It was at a time when the record company had stopped returning our calls - it was definitely the beginning of the end. So we had to play this show at a hotel. There was some metal band on before us, and maybe 18 people came out to see them. It was pretty bad. They did their thing, and by the time we went on, there was literally nobody in the room except for the cocktail waitress and the sound guy. Actually, there was a monitor guy, so that's three."

Afterwards, Morello sat backstage commiserating with one of his bandmates, who happened to offer him a cigarette. "I never smoked in my entire life, but I took the cigarette and put it in my guitar case. As I did, I told him that if I ever got to play Madison Square Garden, I would light that cigarette and smoke it on stage like Keith Richards."

Cut to years later, and Morello was rocking a sell-out crowd with Audioslave at Madison Square Garden. "I'd long lost the cigarette, and I wasn't about to get lung cancer," he says. "But I remembered that night in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and I thought of my bandmate in Lock Up. So in my head I had a ceremonial cigarette on stage that night for him."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.