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"Truth" Hurts

The "Tell Us the Truth" tour hits Washington, with Janeane Garofalo, Tom Morello, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, and other sages.

11:00 PM, Nov 25, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
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THE FIRST THING I noticed coming through the doors of the 9:30 Club was a button on the shoulder bag of the woman in front of me. "Regime Change 2004," it said. Next was the long banner hanging behind blues singer Lester Chambers on stage.

"Tell Us the Truth," the banner read in tall capital letters.

But, no, no one was demanding information. The primary task of the Tell Us the Truth Tour is to sound the alarm for media diversity. This I learned from the website, not the show. Except for one or two comments, media diversity was hardly mentioned in over three hours of music and stump-speaking, featuring British folk-singer Billy Bragg, American bad boy Steve Earle, and REM's Mike Mills, among others.

What this tour's real purpose is I can't say. Janeane Garofalo hosts, about which I can say this: She is a better stand-up comic than cable news guest, unless one judges cable news guests by how much they embarrass themselves.

Yet her comedy is also lacking. Consider this impossibly lackluster setup line, "Didn't you love last week's filibuster?" It was just as well there was no punchline. Doing a predictable Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation that should have been a cake walk, she made the Terminator sound like a character from "Chico Man."

However Garofalo's most irritating tic has to be her habit of asking the audience for help as she makes jokes about her jokes that don't come off. It's of a piece with her pity-me, I'm not a 9-foot blonde act, which she parlayed in several movies, including "The Truth About Cats & Dogs" and "The Matchmaker." And the pity party reveals a deeper unpleasantness. Watching Janeane Garofalo, it is impossible to lose the feeling that she finds the act of living simply nauseating.

One early act was "The Nightwatchman," a name that may have you wondering if he is a character in DC or Marvel comics. Picture instead a comic-book fan. Wearing a baseball cap that conceals his eyes and obstructs any facial expression, the Nightwatchman, a.k.a. Tom Morello of Audioslave (and formerly Rage Against the Machine), delivered a pale imitation of Leonard Cohen, using his low rumbling voice to monotonously stitch together ominous-sounding lyrics that consistently failed to produce any coherent statement or narrative. There's a lonely stretch of blacktop / Between here and home / Drop down into the valley / a piano playing in the living room.

ONE POSSIBLE RATIONALE for the evening's activity was the simple pleasure of live music, and here at least the Truth Tour was speaking my language. Jill Sobule, known best for her hits "I Kissed A Girl"( which appeared on the "Kissing Jessica Stern" soundtrack) and "Supermodel" (from the soundtrack of "Clueless") skipped the part about talking politics. More than once, her short set of hilarious spoof songs, unexpectedly and with real pathos, drifted far beyond the narrow limits of novelty. "Mexican wrestler" starts as a joke about obsessive love: sometimes I wish I was a wrestler/ A Mexican wrestler in a red vinyl mask / And I might grab you/ bodyslam you / And cause you physical harm, with Sobule's sugary half-Tilly voice tweeting with sincerity. Then, halfway through the song, an imperceptible shift has taken place and you are convinced that she means it, desperately so.

If only it could have been a Jill Sobule concert. Instead, politics intruded, with its witless polemics and amateur sloganeering, the "Tell Us the Truth" banner hanging in the background, undercutting the show with its stale irony. Morello told the audience he knew a guy, a war correspondent who went to Baghdad and asked, like, every Iraqi he met what they wanted, and, "about 98 percent said we want America to get the hell out of here." Which seems about 98 percent true. Garofalo called Bush's presidency the "43rd Reich." Also about 98 percent true. About.

Mike Mills of REM, a reader of what newspaper I'm not sure, said: "We read in the papers the FBI's got a new list." On the list, he said, were protesters, people who were anywhere nearby when a protest was going on, people who were mere acquaintances of those people, and so on: "I thought we got rid of this s--- 30 years ago."

One wished for the music to start again, but then it did, with Mills rendering Macy Gray's soulful "I Try" in an earsplitting assault that caused even one of his backup singers to make an icky face. Note to Bill O'Reilly's booker: REM's Mike Mills is ready to go.