The Atlas Underground Experience: A Fantastically Bizarre Evening With Tom Morello

Where do I begin? I thought I had witnessed some disastrous shows in my time, but boy, I was wrong.

Below is a recollection of events that transpired on Thursday, October 11. I sat down to get out the experience in text before I forgot it, and I have multiple witnesses who were present with me at this show who can corroborate every detail you’re about to read.

Here we go.

On Thursday, my girlfriend Simone and I had tickets to go see Tom Morello live. The show was billed as “Tom Morello: The Atlas Underground Experience,” and a description of the show read as follows:

Legendary guitar-god Tom Morello is hitting the road with his highly anticipated collaborative album “The Atlas Underground” and giving fans the exclusive opportunity to hear it in its entirety!

Select fans will get the chance to share a drink with Tom as he tells behind-the-scenes stories about the making of his forthcoming record with famed collaborators, like Marcus Mumford, Portugal. The Man, Gary Clark Jr., Big Boi, Bassnectar, and more.

Every ticket comes with a copy of the new record. This intimate event promises live guitar demonstrations and may even include a few special appearances by surprise guests!

Spanning his distinguished career from Rage Against the Machine to Audioslave, Prophets of Rage, and the making of “The Atlas Underground,” Morello fans won’t want to miss this epic night!

There are key pieces of that description super relevant to making sense of the madness that transpired on that beyond-strange Thursday evening. Maybe we didn’t all read the description carefully enough, because we were expecting the show to be Tom Morello, legendary guitarist, playing select tracks from his new album The Atlas Underground, followed by hits from his amazing legacy of music. I’m fairly sure everyone in attendance was expecting a similar experience.

It wasn’t anything like that. The venue for the show was changed last-minute, hours before doors were set to open, due to gentrification problems in Boyle Heights, where the show was originally scheduled to happen. In solidarity, and because he’s such an amazing dude, Morello miraculously made the venue swap but not without a hitch—not without many hitches.

I’ve attended several shows at the Regent before; it’s an amazing venue to see a band—just small enough to be considered intimate but big enough to feel epic and grandiose. I couldn’t wait to get down into the GA pit and secure us a good spot to watch this legend shred. When we entered the room, however, I quickly realized we were not in for the night we anticipated.

Rows of fold-out chairs lined the GA pit, and as I looked to the stage, I saw a small table set up, with multiple chairs positioned across the stage. No drum kit. Just a banner displaying the bizarre album cover for The Atlas Underground: a hippopotamus with angel wings careening through the sky.

I turned to Simone and said, “I don’t think this is going to be what we were expecting.”

We took seats in the front row. We were confused but not disappointed. I’ve attended many events like this in the past—where artists sit down for an intimate discussion and occasionally pick up their instruments to display their prowess. Even though this wasn’t going to be a concert experience, I pivoted quickly and was ready for something different, as was Simone. As for the rest of the crowd, the same could not be said.

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Tom Morello shreds out a solo. Photo by Connor Strader.

Tom Morello has founded a career on playing heavy, intense metal and rap-rock music. This being the case, a metal crowd showed up on Thursday night. Most of them were several drinks deep already, because I’m willing to bet they also thought this show was going to be a full-blown concert experience.

Nowhere in the title or description of the show were the two distinct words “listening party” explicitly stated. But that’s what this turned out to be—a conversation with Tom Morello about his life and career, followed by him playing his new album The Atlas Underground on the venue’s PA system, while the audience watched lyric videos for each song, projected on the massive stage backdrop.

The crowd around us was especially strange and eclectic—people of all shapes and sizes. A couple sitting next to Simone and I was actually the band Phantogram.

Tom came out with a few special guests featured on his newest album (DJ and producer Whethan, and the guy from Portugal. the Man), and they played a stripped-down version of the record’s best tune “Every Step That I Take.”

The audience was loving it. The crowd was clearly a group of passionate Morello fans (about 300 or so of them), and they were eating it up. After the performance, the musicians left the stage and one of Morello’s close friends came out to conduct the “interview” portion of the show.

They sat down, poured some whiskey, and began discussing Tom’s life and career. This moment of the show was great, too—it was filled with hilarious anecdotes, and Morello would occasionally get up from the table to walk over to his Marshall amp stack to plug in and shred for the audience to get a taste of what he was talking about.

Meanwhile, the one lone technician who was scrambling to make the show work after such a drastically short-notice venue change sprinted back and forth across the stage, desperately trying to connect cords and make sure everything was functioning properly. His low-hanging jeans fell further down his backside as he did so, and he was clearly under insane amounts of pressure as he continuously missed important cues in the show. He never had the equipment working properly when it needed to be—much to Morello’s growing frustration.

The audience was getting rowdier as the night went on, and this is where things took a turn for the bizarre. As the crowd began to realize that most of the show’s content would consist of this interview segment, they began to get confused and pushy.

Remember, this is an audience who prepared themselves for a heavy metal concert and, instead, were watching a VH1 Storytellers-type performance.

As Tom Morello began to tell personal stories about growing up, learning guitar, and finding his way in the music business, the crowd would suddenly shout out “Yeah, Tom!” or even stranger responses, like, “Hey Tom, where’s Zack (de la Rocha)?”

Morello dodged these curveballs gracefully, at first, smiling and laughing with the audience. What was weirdest to me was the way in which the audience behaved, as if there was still a concert going on. They constantly screamed and cheered, even though nothing was really happening on stage beyond some personal yarns being spun.

“We had nooses in our garage when I was a kid,” Morello randomly blurted out in a discombobulated anecdote.

“FUCK YEAH!” some guy yelled in response.

“LET’S GO TOM!”

“Hey, that was a really cool thing to do, Tom!”

“Tom, you’re my hero, please reunite Rage soon!”

These were just some of the things repeatedly getting yelled at Morello while he attempted to conduct a normal interview on stage.

“I’m loving this rowdy crowd!” the moderator said at one point, attempting to break the tension.

“Yeah, well, it’s a homecoming show. We’re in LA!” Morello responded enthusiastically. The crowd continued to cheer and shout.

One middle-aged gentleman in particular would not stop calling out to Tom on stage.

“You rock, Tom! Let’s hear some Rage!” the man yelled.

Morello began to ignore the audience. He had just begun talking about his dearly departed friend Chris Cornell. He told a lovely story about how the pair met and transitioned into an original song he wrote for Cornell. It was meant to be a truly touching and heartfelt moment until…

SCREEEECH!

A loud screeching sound pervaded the air, followed by some mumbling and yelling. It was the sound of chairs being pushed aside.

Me, Simone, and the Phantogram guy whirled around to see that only a row or two behind us, a fight was breaking out.

“You wanna fucking make fun of me, motherfucker!” one of the belligerently drunk men shouted.

“You’re at a fucking show, dude. Yo, chill!” one man said, stepping in to intervene.

The Phantogram guy looked terrified.

“Fuck you, motherfucker!” the drunk guy yelled. He was tall, overweight, and wore a white fedora with a feather in it. The entire theater stood still as we collectively watched on in disbelief.

“HEY! What is going on?” Tom Morello yelled from the stage. The whole audience had turned to witness the fight.

“Hey! Stop that! This is a show, come on! I’m trying to play a song for my recently departed friend! Have some respect!” Morello continued to yell at the two gentlemen fighting.

The fight calmed down, and the hammered fedora dude apologized to Tom.

“Hey, HEY! I’m sorry,” he yelled.

“It’s okay, it’s fine,” Morello said patiently. The song was played, but it was sapped of its emotional weight due to the drunken fight. Morello was clearly annoyed but knew the show must go on.

Eventually, the interview portion came to a close, and it was time to listen to the entire Atlas Underground record from start to finish. Morello set the mood for each song beforehand by giving a brief history of how it came together and which collaborators we could expect to hear on each track. From the first song, I knew trouble was afoot.

The record is good. I actually enjoyed what I heard, but I also knew the rest of the crowd may not be as receptive. The record is laced with EDM and dubstep influence—not exactly what a metal crowd likes to listen to.

After the first track, “Battle Signs,” concluded, the screen faded back to that weird thing—the fucking hippo with wings. We sat in complete silence, staring at this strange image for a full minute in the dark. Several members of the audience began nervously laughing to break the silence. No one was sure what the fuck was going on or what would happen next. The air was charged with discomfort.

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Weird hippo artwork featured prominently throughout the show. We faced this image in dark, awkward silence multiple times throughout the night.

“Oh shit, I’m coming!” Morello called out from off stage. Clearly, he had missed his cue.

CRASH!

Morello dropped the mic, which screeched over the PA as he tripped up the stairs leading to the stage. The crowd gasped in shock.

“Haha! Sorry about that!” Morello said as he prepared to introduce the next song. After another lengthy anecdote, he started to walk off the stage. Halfway to the stairs, something strange happened…

BLEGAUUHHHHH YEAH!

A female rapper’s voice blasted from the PA, shocking the crowd. A music cue was missed, and a song was started in the middle of its runtime.

The crew aborted the cue and quickly reset back to the image of the hippo with wings yet again.

“Woah,” one man called out from the back of the venue. The crew quickly restarted the song to try and get things back on track.

Five more album tracks played out while the audience watched lyric videos for each song. Each time, Morello would introduce the song and then leave the stage, only to return as the track finished. The crowd was growing increasingly more restless. After one introduction, the lights dimmed, and Tom went to leave the stage again when someone cried out, “TOM! We love you but play some classics!”

Morello grinned goofily as he walked off stage—he hadn’t heard what the person yelled.

When he returned, however, he got the full-on blunt force of it.

“This next song I’m really proud of, and it features an artist I really have come to admire greatly: K.Flay,” Tom began before suddenly stopping.

An audience member had made his way to the front of the stage and was staring Morello down. All eyes were on him.

“Tom, we don’t want to hear this fucking shit, man! We don’t want to listen to fucking K.Flay!” the man yelled in Morello’s face as his beer sloshed around in its cup.

“Young man, what are you doing?” Morello asked.

“We drove all the way from Boyle Heights to downtown for this shit! You brought all these guitars!” the man yelled, gesturing violently to the many guitars sitting off to the side of the stage.

“Why aren’t you fucking playing them!?”

Simone and I looked to the nearby security guards standing off to the side of the stage to see if they’d intervene—miraculously, they didn’t. Instead, they let it all unfold, perhaps also paralyzed by the shock of the whole ordeal. Or perhaps, it was just that in the last-minute venue change, a ragtag team of random guards was thrown together hastily for the event, and these guys simply had not one fuck to give. Whatever the reason, they stayed still.

“Please sir, I promise you I’m going to play, I will,” Morello pleaded with the guy. Tom was being far nicer than he should’ve been to this jerk.

“Just play some classics man, that’s what we want to hear!” the drunken fool shouted back.

Security finally stepped in and guided the man back to his seat.

“Young man, I told you I was going to shred at the end of this show, and I’d like you to be in the room for that, so please, calm down!” Morello pleaded with the angry patron.

I have to say, at this point, I was feeling for Tom. He could not have been more professional, patient, and accommodating to a really tough crowd that didn’t fully appreciate what they were witnessing. Being an amateur musician myself, I’m fully aware of how shitty it is when you’re up on stage and nothing goes your way. It’s the worst, most helpless feeling in the world. However, it was still amazingly entertaining to watch the entire evening come off the rails.

Tom addressed the audience, “Look, this is always what the show was going to be. Maybe read the fine print next time. This is a listening party for the album, right before it comes out!” Most of the audience applauded and cheered him on.

“We love you, Tom!”

Morello’s mood shifted significantly. He no longer seemed as enthusiastic to introduce each album track, and quickly hurried his way through the remaining few tracks to give the people what they demanded.

Even the Phantogram guy seemed restless, to say the least.

In my own drunken mind, I was struggling to process everything around me.

“I feel weird,” Simone said to me, as I nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, this is really something else,” I replied, half laughing.

“I’m not sure how I’m going to feel when we leave here tonight,” Simone added. No words could better sum up the overall vibe of the evening. I kept waiting for David Lynch to walk out on stage to let us know the entire spectacle had been written and directed by him.

The album portion of the show finished, and the crowd was fading fast. Had the show been better marketed, I’m fairly sure Morello would have had the audience he intended to reach, but the poor promotion resulted in total miscommunication on multiple fronts.

Morello sensed he was losing his crowd and came back out, guitar-in-hand, firing on all cylinders.

“ARE YOU WITH ME? Come on! Are you with me tonight?!” he yelled, rallying the crowd. It worked for the most part. The crowd went wild as Morello screamed through some classic tunes.

“It seems unfortunate you’re all down there and I’m up here, so why don’t you come up here and join me for this next one!” he said, inviting the fans to rush the stage. The whole theater got up and jumped up on stage. Morello steered the crowd through an awkward rendition of a folk classic (“This Land Is Your Land”) featuring none other than Chuck D (Public Enemy) himself.

The crowd didn’t know what to do. We awkwardly swayed and sang off-key. A few dread-locked nu-metal fans stared blankly off into space as we performed the song to the staff of the Regent. I had a weird moment of clarity:

I’m on stage at the Regent, with Tom Morello and Chuck D, with the weirdest audience I’ve ever been a part of, singing “This Land Is Your Land” to rows of empty folding chairs and a seemingly indifferent theater staff, who didn’t think they’d have to work tonight.

Finally, Morello decided to throw the crowd one last final bone of a surprise by playing a Rage Against the Machine classic, “Killing In The Name.”

As he struck his guitar to test that it was functioning properly, he ran into yet another snag: the guitar wasn’t working.

The seemingly stoned technician, who had been fumbling the technical side of things all night, fiddled violently with Morello’s guitar rig to try and get it working.

This was the final straw. Morello began breaking down on stage in front of everyone, a man pushed to the limits of his sanity by the turbulent evening.

“There’s no sound; it’s not on. TURN IT ON! IS IT GONNA WORK OR NOT?! YES OR NO?!” Morello screamed at the crew.

The crowd, still awkwardly piled up on the stage, began to erupt into thunderous applause and cheering. The intent was to show Tom we were all behind him, but it ended up only contributing to the developing chaos and confusion on the stage.

“Wooooo! Yeah!”

“Alright, TOM!”

People were screaming and cheering as Morello broke down.

“WHAT THE FUCK! YES OR NO! Is it going to work!? Yeah, push more buttons hit more shit, that’ll fix it.”

More cheering and screaming.

“I NEED A FUCKING YES OR NO ANSWER! ‘MAYBE’ OR ‘I DON’T KNOW’ ISN’T GOING TO CUT IT!” Morello screamed.

Finally, he gave up, throwing his guitar at the technician.

“Take this FUCKING SHIT!” he yelled. He turned to the sound guys, violently waving and gesturing with his arms like a mad man.

“JUST PLAY THE SONG! PLAY THE FUCKING SONG! PLAY IT LOUD!”

The sound guys obliged, putting on the backtrack version of “Killing In the Name” Morello was clearly meant to play along with. With no guitar to play, he made the best of the moment by weirdly dancing, flashing middle fingers, and giving the mic to audience members to belt out the lyrics.

Although it was disastrously awkward, like most of the night had been, Morello was saving the show. Eventually, a technician fixed his guitar and got it to him in time for the legendary solo and conclusion of the song. It was in this moment we were reminded who we were on stage with. Morello unleashed his pent-up frustration and anger from the problematic show on his instrument, screaming and screeching out heavy licks.

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Tom Morello jams out a Rage classic with fans on stage. Photo by Connor Strader.

It was beyond satisfying to hear and more than made up for the technical difficulties prior. All in all, I was pleased with the evening, and I think most fans were, as well. Morello is undoubtedly a legend, regardless of how well the show went down. He’s arguably the greatest, most innovative guitar player of the last several decades, and he’ll be remembered alongside the best, including Hendrix, Page, and many more.

I was reminded that sometimes it’s just as entertaining, if not more so, when things don’t go as planned. It felt more lively and exciting somehow—the whole place was charged with a strange energy. And I only write this review because I know for a fact that one bad night on record will do nothing to tarnish the legacy Morello has built.

As the song concluded, Morello addressed the crowd looking a little defeated, “This has been a special evening,” he said, with a tinge of sarcasm in his voice.

“A really fucking special evening.”

He wasn’t wrong. I’ll never forget this show for as long as I live.

If live theater is a living and breathing thing, then Tom Morello’s Atlas Underground Experience was an unpredictable beast with rabies. A fantastically strange night for all involved.

The Atlas Underground is available now in stores everywhere. Go check it out!

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