[For more photos check out Timothy Norris' slideshow,"Rage Against The Machine's Immigrant Rights Benefit @ Palladium."]
With all the turmoil and wrongdoing in the world, it's a wonder Rage Against the Machine ever left the stage. But with the exception of 2007's Coachella and Rock the Bells festivals, Rage's performance last Friday at the Palladium -- their only North American stop -- was the band's first headlining SoCal appearance since 2000's The Battle of Los Angeles tour.
This time, they had a new bone to pick, specifically Arizona's controversial new immigration law. The benefit raised approximately $300,000 for various boycotting groups and was organized by singer Zack de la Rocha's Sound Strike, which so far has recruited Nine Inch Nails, Kanye West, Cypress Hill, Ben Harper, Conor Oberst and dozens of other artists.
Despite a strong effort, Oberst and his Mystic Valley Band were simply a poor choice for openers, having to contend with the crowd's boos and chanting of "Rage! Rage! Rage!" You can tell an opening band's singer is feeling skittish when he announces more than once that the headliners are just moments away. Not surprising. The bigger the cause, the bigger the clowns. That included all the air-punching and gang-sign-throwing guys in the "Nugent Rules," "I Heart Latinas" and "I Only Look Illegal" T-shirts. (Give me a Vans-wearing lunkhead over a skinny hipster any day).
You couldn't blame them, though. Whether it was the booze, misplaced anger or genuine frustration over Arizona's stance on immigration enforcement, the audience wasn't there to be entertained. They were there to be moved.
Moved to throw shit. Moved to waive their "five-sided fist-a-gon"s. Moved to knock each other down and pick each other up. And moved to walk out of the venue with sopping wet hair, still screaming into the night. There was enough energy and heat harnessed in that ballroom to fog up the lobby's windows.
If anger is a gift, the Palladium looked like Santa's workshop. But all was surprisingly smooth. The only emergency sounds we heard came from the siren call of "Testify" that ushered in the band in front of a backdrop of a lone red star. Watching the four, not much has changed: de la Rocha still leap-frogs across the stage and can still rarrrrgh like a bloodthirsty attack dog; guitarist Tom Morello still uses his trademark "Arm the Homeless" ax, strings sprouting from the head; and bassist Tim Commerford is almost completely inked from the waist up.
Rage played nearly all of their eponymous debut, from "Bombtrack," with its creeping intro, to the funked-out, Apartheid-inspired "Township Rebellion" on which de la Rocha's unmistakable mic skills outshine any rapper's. "Gotta get wreck/Till our necks never swing on a rope/From here to the cape of no hope." The set list also included hits from Rage's followup albums, Evil Empire and The Battle of Los Angeles, in addition to a cover of the Clash's "White Riot."
The night's agenda was clear. De la Rocha dedicated "People of the Sun" and nearly every song thereafter to "our brothers and sisters from Arreesona," while Rage's biggest hit, "Killing in the Name" went out especially to Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona's Maricopa County. "It's not only a racist law, it's a divisive law," de la Rocha said of the SB 1070 bill.
Yes, there was plenty of soapboxing. De la Rocha is the group's mouthpiece, and guys as passionate and incendiary as these four don't just wear their anger on their sleeve, they wear it all over. And therein lies the dilemma of listening to a political band. They're equal parts message and music. But can you take one without the other?
Rock star do-gooders are always greeted with a measure of eye-rolling skepticism. And Rage has always had a myopic and naive worldview of white devil vs. the brown man. But a lot has changed since the band's arrival in the early '90s. Rap is not automatically threatening, music is no longer bought, and the pissed-off college kids Rage was recruiting for their political and musical revolution are older now and too busy holding onto their jobs to try and free Mumia or Leonard Peltier (no doubt those $400 and $500 Craigslist tickets for this sold-out benefit had plenty of takers, right?). And, lest we forget, there was Morello's unholy union with P. Diddy for the 1998 Godzilla soundtrack.
All bands, even nose- and heart-bleeding leftists like Rage, have contradictions. Morello's undeniable inventiveness, though -- it's a bird, it's a turntable, it's a guitar-- is a well that'll never run dry. He's definitely up with the pantheon of guitar gods.
De la Rocha put aside his vitriol long enough to give drummer Brad Wilk a little solo on "Sleep Now in the Fire." A song like "Freedom," with its classic tension-building slowdown, was made for moshing. And by the time the band returned for its two-song encore, the circling pit looked like a moving lost- and-found of discarded shoes and cell phones. No surprise that "Killing in the Name" had the entire audience giving a one-digit salute, though there might've been more than 16 repeats of "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me."
Clearly, the message fuels the music. So here's hoping that turmoil and wrongdoing never go out of style.
People of the Sun
Know Your Enemy
Bulls on Parade
Bullet in the Head
Calm Like a Bomb
Sleep Now in the Fire
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Killing in the Name