When Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello joined Billy Bragg's "Tell Us the Truth" outing in 2003, the guitarist learned a few things from the British singer-songwriter and activist about leading a multi-artist charity tour: "You have to be bossy," laughs Morello. "Billy would say 'Your set is this length; these are the songs we're going to play.' "
This time, Morello is calling the shots. The Justice Tour, a seven-city, two-week cross-country trek masterminded by the longtime Los Angeles resident, pairs music from a diverse rotating lineup with primarily local, socially progressive organizations.
"In every city, on every stop, for one night we are taking back America," Morello said backstage Tuesday at the Troubadour a few hours before opening night. "The idea is to create a little bit of the world we'd like to see."
Tickets for each show -- except the $25 Road Recovery benefit in New York tonight -- are $10, with all proceeds from the gate and merchandise donated to the designated local charity. The artists are playing free, and their travel expenses have been underwritten by such organizations as Project Noise and MSN.
Among the participating artists are Slash, Stewart Copeland, AFI's Davey Havoc, Cypress Hill, Flea, Jerry Cantrell, the Coup's Boots Riley, Ben Harper, Shooter Jennings, State Radio, Perry Farrell, Pete Yorn and MC5 founder Wayne Kramer.
In addition to raising money, the Justice Tour is aiming to boost awareness through activism: The musicians will spend one day in each city working with the affiliated charity.
On Monday, several of the artists visited L.A. beneficiary People Assisting the Homeless. "We were washing dishes and cutting pie," State Radio's Chad Stokes said. "Sometimes when you're a touring band, you're in your van all the time and in this sort of myopic world. It's cool to be involved in something that's tangible and real."
"It's consciousness-raising; we're carrying a message wherever we go," said Kramer, who is playing all seven dates. "If we have any leverage, we're using it to get people to pay attention to what's going on in their own neighborhoods, in their own city." And, if Tuesday night's show was any example, to bring an eclectic musical caravan to town.
The almost four-hour concert at a sold-out Troubadour was a ragged assemblage of brilliance -- Steve Vai, whose electrifying guitar wizardry was so hot that he even blew on his guitar to cool it down; stoner rap-rock from Cypress Hill, whose B Real smoked what appeared to be a joint throughout the group's three-song, high-energy set; a mini Jane's Addiction reunion courtesy of Farrell and Dave Navarro; and esoterica in the form of Kramer's spoken-word, guitar-bending salute to poet Charles Bukowski, "So Long Hank."
There was even lighthearted absurdity in a mind-bending, lengthy closing jam that segued from Madonna's "4 Minutes" into MC5's classic "Kick Out the Jams" and then into Rihanna's "Umbrella" -- all with Kramer on guitar.
Morello handpicked the lineup, which, he said, consisted of "basically anybody in my BlackBerry who said yes." Revealing one's political affiliation was not required.
"There was no litmus test for artists performing on this tour," he said. "I'm not sure how Cypress Hill or Shooter Jennings are voting in this upcoming election, but I know for sure they're going to be rocking furiously on stage for some very good causes."