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Politic Passion: Polar Bear Club, Tom Morello Nightwatchman and Rise Against at Rock City, Nottingham; 2nd November 2011

November 11, 2011

On Wednesday 2nd November 2011, Rise Against, joined by Polar Bear Club and Tom Morello: Nightwatchman, kicked off the UK leg of their “Endgame” tour at Nottingham’s Rock City. I wouldn’t normally be out on a schoolnight (I need my beauty sleep… desperately), but I decided I could probably make an exception for one of my favourite bands of all time and so by the power of these tickets, I was able to attend this momentous event:

As I walked in, donning my freshly purchased Rise Against T-shirt from the merch stand, Polar Bear Club were already part way through their set. By the time I arrived they only had three songs left, which means they must have started playing more or less as soon as the first people went in at 6.30; a little unusual, but I suppose not unheard of considering the popularity of the headline act. I was a little disappointed to have missed the start, though, as I’m not at all familiar with the band beyond recognising the name and was hoping that seeing them play live would be a good way to be introduced to them. However by the time I had lodged myself in what was to be my “spot” for the night, they only had a few songs remaining and didn’t really grab my attention. The impression I gained was that the “indie rock” quintet think they’re more “rock” than “indie”, however their music suggests the opposite and presented quite an interesting juxtaposition of stage behaviour and musical style. I can’t fault their musicianship – these guys are talented and the fact that I’ve heard of them despite their being outside of my usual music radar means they must be pretty famous and therefore popular – but unfortunately they just aren’t my cup of tea.

However, it was Tom Morello’s performance that makes me feel that had I seen more of Polar Bear Club, I may have felt differently about them. It took me a couple of minutes to click that the Tom Morello on stage was the same Tom Morello as played lead guitar for Rage Against the Machine (I had no idea that he’d gone solo!) and when he and his band took to the stage and started playing, to be honest I was dubious about him. Rage was a little before my time and even though I’ve heard their music and loved it, I’ve never seen them perform so had no idea what to expect. Morello wears his guitar unusually high and plays in a very rigid and, well, militant style – very apt considering the politicism of many of the Nightwatchman’s lyrics – that visually compares to the staccato reading of a small child just grasping the idea of words and sentences. However, despite the rigidity of his posture, this man can work wonders on a guitar. Over the course of his set, he played it with his face, his hands… in fact, whatever the limb, he appeared to play his guitar with it!

Electrics were wonderfully interspersed with acoustics and he even bust a harmonica out for a few songs. His music has a quaintly country feel to it, using familiar images and metaphors to refer to wider political issues. He really engaged with the audience, talking to them, inviting them to read his class-status motivated comic, “Orchid” (which was available to buy from the merch stand at, to borrow Morello’s words “a recession busting £1), teaching them his lyrics and inviting them to clap and sing along. His grand finale number, “Worldwide Rebel Songs”, was a really communal effort and Morello even got Rise Against‘s Tim McIlrath up on stage to join in. I was so impressed that ever since the performance, I have been trying to find their album and buy it; Tom Morello Nightwatchman is definitely a band that I want to hear more of. I just wish HMV felt the same, as they don’t appear to stock it.

Finally, then, it was time for Rise Against to take to the stage. For anyone who doesn’t know the band, they are made up of Tim McIlrath on vocals (he sometimes looks a bit beardy), Zach Blair on lead guitar (he has no hair), Joe Principe on bass (the one with the most tattoos) and Brandon Barnes (the one in the background usually) on drums. Rise Against‘s particular brand of melodic punk/hardcore/rock is especially political, with all of their albums centering around issues prominent at the time of writing (the war features highly in “Appeal to Reason”, for example), and the band themselves promote awareness of animal rights and other causes fairly shamelessly at their gigs and through their merchandise. Listening to them speak to the audience this November, I could tell how passionate they are about the issues at hand right now – the “Occupy…” movements going on around the world, reactions against the austerity measures and rioting that has been seen over the last few months, and so on – and I actually left feeling fairly empowered to take my life back into my own hands, to forge my path through the world and make of my future what I want from it.

But, we are not here to talk about the inadvertent counselling that I received from Rise Against, we are here to talk about their music (hell yeah!). The band’s set at this gig was a brilliant blend of old and new – combining favourite tracks from their previous albums with new material from “Endgame”, which was released in March this year. Kicking off with ‘Re-Education (Through Labor)’, from “Appeal to Reason”, the political tone of Rise Against‘s music was pretty clear from the onset, and they quite quickly blasted through the first part of their set. Hearing some of my latest favourites from “Endgame”, like ‘Make It Stop (September’s Children)’ and ‘Architects’, live for the first time was amazing, but when Tim took to the stage alone, armed only with an acoustic guitar, and launched into ‘Swing Life Away’ (from “Siren Song of the Counter Culture”), I think my heart actually stopped in my chest. Even though I’ve heard it played live before (at the O2 Academy in Sheffield, Feb 2009), the impact of hearing this song played live never diminishes. The same goes for ‘Hero of War’ (from “Appeal to Reason”), which I have always found immensely touching as a piece of music and hugely powerful and influential as lyrics. Listening to it, even recorded, always brings a tear to my eye.

The highlight of their set though, for me, has to be the encore. ‘Saviour’ (from “Appeal to Reason”), apart from the acoustic tracks ‘Swing Life Away’ and ‘Hero of War’, is my absolute favourite Rise Against track. This is probably a controversial choice when pitted against songs like ‘Prayer of the Refugee’, but I don’t care. I love it. For them to close on my favourite track ever meant I left with the biggest smile on my face, and I’ve been listening to nothing but Rise Against on repeat ever since. I was more impressed by the band the second time I saw them than the first. It seemed like they played a much longer set on this occasion at Rock City, and they engaged much more with the audience, trying, without being pushy and uncool, to get the kids (and I can say kids, because I daresay most of them were younger than I am at the ripe old age of 23!) on board with the political issues that are shaping the world they live in and will affect their futures. I love Rise Against. They are damned fine musicians and are far from lacking “rock and roll” appeal, but they have a conscience too, and that is a refreshing, beautiful thing.

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