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Come On Feel the Rage 

Rage Against the Machine and Lemonheads at Coachella

Wednesday, May 2 2007
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{mosimage}Rage Against the Machine have been spending a lot of time together, and a lot of time in their practice space. You could practically smell a rock & roll practice room just watching them up on the Jumbotrons at Coachella — stale beer, cigarettes, skin, carpeting, some vague WD-40 vibe. They looked okay, too — Zack de la Rocha in a red shirt and mini-Afro, hairline hangin’ in there; Tom Morello in military-esque gear; the other dudes all muscular and healthy. I had never seen Rage live, and so the primary revelation for me during this Coachella set, as obvious as it may sound, was that they are actually a band. Yeah, they wear their chosen shtick on their sleeves as heavily as any band ever did — more doggedly topical than U2 at their most doggedly topical, Rage are cartoonishly theme-based. You might even call them the Kiss of protest rock — without the explosions, cool makeup and general humor. (And Morello’s solo stuff is no Ace Frehley.)

But Rage are also a real band, and a really good band, which is their saving grace, and the only reason I can forgive them for their self-seriousness. And I’m really talking about de la Rocha in that regard. Morello’s wacky, hooky, super-Zeppy guitar work demonstrates a solid grasp of rock & roll funsmanship (and funk); and the supple/staccato attack of the rhythm section — Tim Commerford on bass and Brad Wilk on drums — is certainly based on the pleasure principle.

The presentation was pretty bare-bones: The back of the stage was hung with a large red-star banner, and video screens featured loads of close-ups of Commerford’s and Morello’s fretwork — so deft their fingers often became an impressive, mesmerizing blur. We were also party to numerous shots of de la Rocha crouching, all earnest-like, peering into some apocalyptic future just beyond the Santa Rosa Mountains.

But that’s exactly why I wanted to see this gig, Rage’s first show since breaking up some seven or eight years ago. I wanted to open a time capsule from my youth. I’m not a real fan, and yet we are of the same generation, and like anyone our age, I will always remember the first time I heard “Killing in the Name” — and how indelible and perfect that moment was. (I was maybe 21, at a rock club in Prague, very late at night, missing America but also feeling thrilled to be living behind the former Iron Curtain. Rage sounded so American that night — with all the cockiness and brash youthfulness one might associate with that. And it’s a funny thing too, how a band so hell-bent on anti-patriotism can be so very American, without even meaning to.)

I came to this show because I wanted to witness a real rock & roll Lazarus rise from a 1990s grave and walk and talk just like before. Some other heroes of my youth will never be able to rise up to rock or rap again. I guess you could say this was a nostalgia trip for me — and not even nostalgia for Rage specifically. Weird.

I missed the opening, after being cruelly tossed out by security guards for being lost with the wrong sort of wristband. (I was later told that Rage’s security established a lockdown of the stage area just before their set.) I fought my way back and headed to the middle of the crowd. And the crowd was enormous. I settled close to a pretty enthusiastic mosh pit, but overall the audience felt blessedly chilled out. (Thank god for sunstroke, right?) And still, after a while — roundabout “Bullet in Your Head,” I guess — I remembered something important. And that was, I never really liked Rage Against the Machine that much. I have huge respect for their chops, and I dug their covers album (Renegades, featuring a superfantastic “Kick Out the Jams”), and I would listen to them any day, for the rest of my life, over Godsmack or Slipknot or any other horrible nü-metal band born in their wake. And yet, and yet, and yet... when you hear a bunch of Rage’s most kick-ass songs in quick succession, you begin to understand the basic sameness of their structure – the way they all build in this repetitive, potentially mindless manner, to a supposedly orgasmic climax; and you begin to understand that this band is just a few degrees away from being meathead rock, and most of their best stuff is essentially a variation on “Killing in the Name.” The emotional monotony begins to kick in, and you notice the routine quality of the vocals.

And what’s with the red star, anyway? I used to see Zack de la Rocha driving around Los Feliz in a Mercedes. I mean, I’m all for rock artifice, but I wonder how rich rock stars would actually fare in a communist revolution situation, where personal wealth is seized by the proletariat. (When I saw Morello play solo recently, he made an off-the-cuff remark that he’d never run for president because “it wouldn’t pay enough.”) I’m just saying.

You ponder such questions. And then you remember, Hey! The Lemonheads are playing! And you say, Let’s go see what old shithead’s up to!

And so I stumbled down to the Lemonheads’ stage, where perhaps 200-odd kids bobbed, hopped, clapped and sang along to the prettiest darn chord progressions you ever did hear, and the loveliest of baritones, warm and chestnut-colored, somehow, like Evan Dando’s shoulder-length straight hair. Just a power trio, Vess Ruhtenberg on bass and Devon Ashley on drums — but quite a lot of power in there, especially in Dando’s dandy voice and Ashley’s sweet-ass drums and their three-part harmonies, and the lyrical wistfulness of such ditties as “My Drug Buddy,” “Great Big No,” “Allison’s Starting to Happen” (such joy!), and “Style,” perhaps one of the better addiction poems ever penned (“Don’t wanna get high/But I don’t wanna not get high...”). I missed “Into Your Arms,” my favorite, which they had played first.

Between songs, Dando played feedback on his guitar, apparently to drown out the noise from Rage Against the Miami Sound Machine (as he called them), but he seemed quite happy with his little stage, and his little crowd. “This is fun!” he said, wearing a white hard hat and black tuxedo jacket, and you could tell he meant it. Myself, I’m just happy to see this notorious addict alive — especially after a gorgeous but troubling acoustic set at McCabe’s a few years back, featuring all manner of fucked-up fumbling and bumbling and full-bodied vocal glory.

And so, quite by accident, I did have my ’90s Lazarus moment after all. Lemonheads-style.

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Reach the writer at ksullivan@laweekly.com

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