The stage floods red, and the guitars churn. This rock is southern grit — a real heartland affair. Onstage, a man with straggly black hair steadies his guitar and returns to the microphone stand: "They've never known want, they'll never know need/ Their shit don't stink, and their kids won't bleed/ Their kids won't bleed in their damn little war/ And we can't make it here anymore." The crowd goes off, the band keeps up, and then James McMurtry puts down his guitar.
This is pretty much what preaching to the converted looks like. I should know — I'm up here every night, and I see it all the time. By day I'm a writer, but nights still find me on my balcony perch behind the lighting board at the Great American Music Hall. My voyeur point offers nightly opportunities to study the mechanics of crowds. From here, I've learned that hippies twirl, hipsters stand with arms folded, punk rockers still mosh — well, they try — and any alt-country audience worth its salt drains all the Maker's Mark early in the night.
Still, there are two things that happen during every show. The first, somewhat annoying thing is that at some point someone in the band will say something like "Hey, this place used to be a brothel, you know." This false statement is typically followed by a joke, statement, or inflammatory song about the Bush administration. The San Francisco crowd — regardless of what kind of night it is — will always go crazy.
McMurtry is at that point in the evening — only he's played here enough times to forgo the cathouse comment, and he skips right to the hard stuff. "We Can't Make It Here Anymore" is nothing short of an anthem, a wartime confession that things these days are pretty fucked up. This marks the third time I've witnessed a crowd encountering this song. From above, I can see the now-familiar shudders — I see the guitar chords grabbing at the guts, the lyrics pulling at the guilt, and the eyes glazing over with the most dutifully civic of queries: how the hell did we get to this point?
Music has long been a vehicle for dissent. In fact, the protest genre's history is so strong that some of its most revolutionary battle cries ("The times they are a-changin’," "God save the queen," and "Fuck the police") have become pop culture clichés. Sticks and stones and all of that, but it turns out the right words can pack one hell of a punch.
A few months ago during the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park, a known dissenter rewrote an old song, Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues," in front of more than 50,000 listeners. It was Fleet Week in the city, and fighter jets roared overhead as Billy Bragg led his crowd through the chorus of "Bush War Blues," a sea of middle fingers fiercely stabbing at the air.
It seems that we are all tangled up in the newest wave of protest music — and it's quite a stretch from the "Kumbaya," peacenik days of yore. Today's troubadours are mobile. Bragg, McMurtry, and countless other hard-touring artists are playing festivals, midlevel clubs, and bars from coast to coast — resulting in a revolution being waged on stages throughout the land, a series of battles fought one song at a time.
I can't help but think, as I watch the crowd down below, that at this very moment somewhere in this country, a 13-year-old kid is being shoved into a dark and sweaty all-ages venue. The band onstage is yelling about blood and oil, telling him he's going to die for his government. The vocalist gives a "fuck you" to our commander-in-chief before launching into another indecipherable, out-of-tune 45-second song. The room goes wild. And the kid, for perhaps the first time, realizes that there is a movement afoot. SFBG
K. TIGHE'S WORKING-STIFF TOP 10
(1) Steve Earle and Billy Bragg on the same stage Oct. 7 at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, flipping off passing aircraft alongside their enormous crowds.
(2) Radio Birdman at the Great American Music Hall on Aug. 31.