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Rewind the clock nineteen years. Did anyone realize when first hearing Rage Against the Machine that the band would become a cultural juggernaut popular enough to easily headline their own festival? The band had auspicious beginnings for sure, but going backwards to those early days where “Freedom” played only on late-night MTV, the band seemed more like a “good idea” than an eye-opening, forceful behemoth. Now, at the pinnacle of their success in 2011, the band presented a festival all their own at the massive Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum stadium, dubbed L.A. Rising. How has the band accomplished such a feat? Done in partnership with Goldenvoice (the company famous for the likes of Coachella and Stagecoach), Rage Against the Machine picked the bands and Goldenvoice handled the logistics. The results were expectedly top heavy, as the opening acts suffered from consistent sound and mix troubles while headliners RATM and Muse delivered excellent performances.
All photos by Marv Watson
Thankfully, Saturday the 30th of July was a cool summer day. Thousands of fans slowly entered the gigantic complex as the final notes of Mexico’s El Gran Silencio rang out. L.A. Rising was a one-stage event, so there were decent sized gaps between performances to allow for set changeovers. New York rapper Immortal Technique got the day off to an awkward start. Rhyming on stage with three hype men—one hype man would have been plenty—the backing music queued up by his accompaniment DJ Static distorted through the venue, fully blown out by an unbalanced mix. Stranger still, nothing was done to alleviate the imbalance in sound levels over the course of his almost sixty minutes on stage. The rapper wasted countless minutes giving all kinds of inane speeches, some poignant (“Terrorism doesn’t have a religion. Terrorism doesn’t have a race”), some pointless (urging the crowd to chant “Fuck cops”) and others just plain pithy (“You’re not digging deep enough. Come the fuck to the undergound”).
That out of the way, new mom Lauryn Hill (credited on the lineup as Ms. Lauryn Hill) was the next up to perform. Hill’s reputation precedes her, and speculation ran rampant on whether she would even arrive in time for the performance. Thankfully, Hill began only about five minutes late. Regrettably though, her set was a jangled mess of sloppy arrangements. For nearly the first thirty minutes of her set it was nigh impossible to understand what she was singing or occasionally even what was going on. The overdriven mix was mostly to blame for audio chaos in her set, yet the players consistently appeared either a half note ahead or behind of the tempo. Fugees classics “Fu-Ge-La” and “Ready or Not” helped bring some cohesion to the set, still not enough though to render the performance anything worthy of the acclaim she enjoyed about ten years back.
The tide began to turn with Rise Against. The band cut through some of the audio troubles with a no-nonsense punk approach. About halfway through their set the mix finally started to veer where all instrumentation was becoming audible. The band was energetic and focused, delivering songs with speedy efficiency. “Survive” whipped the audience up into its first mosh pits of the day, seven circle pits to be precise. Later “Prayer of the Refugee” incited even more excitement, making strong use of the quiet/loud/quiet/loud format. Lead singer Tim McIlrath commented, “I’m proud to stand here with people who still give a shit about their future.” The band changed up the pace only briefly with a semi-acoustic number “Hero of War” before bringing the set to a rocking conclusion.
The evening’s final two sets almost fully cancelled out some of the day’s earlier transgressions. Muse came through with a stellar set of hits combined with nimble workouts on classic rock greats, and even a few Muse-efied snippets of Rage Against the Machine songs. Muse’s lead singer Matthew Bellamy is a well-documented fan of Rage Against the Machine and no doubt, Muse’s presence here is because of both bands’ mutual respect for each other. Bellamy, bassist Christopher Wolstenholme and drummer Dominic Howard began with the first piece of their Exogenesis suite, “Exogenesis: Symphony Part I (Overture).” The song’s delicate yet triumphant bombast set the stage for much of the band’s epic sound. “Uprising” from their last full-length album The Resistance followed, and through Bellamy’s heartfelt delivery, managed to overcome what could have been a necessary drop-in of a slightly over-played track.
From there, the synth driven “Map of the Problematique” provided textural nuance and “Supermassive Black Hole” highlighted the best of the band’s more serpentine and alluring side. “Butterfiles & Hurricanes” even featured one of Bellamy’s trademark classical piano solos. The sound here was purely pristine. Muse took the opportunity to add extra layers to songs. For example, fan favorite “Hysteria” was sandwiched perfectly in between the opening/closing of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and a portion of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Later, bits of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” (with “United States of Eurasia”) “House of the Rising Sun (with “Time is Running Out”) and Rage Against the Machine’s “Township Rebellion” (with “Stockholm Syndrom”) would all make an appearance, as if Muse was giving a master’s class in true stadium rock. Love song “Starlight” provided just the right balance for the upbeat numbers, and appropriately, Muse finished off with the escalating greatness of their Queen-like “Knights of Cydonia.”
Muse Set List:
Exogenesis: Symphony Part I (Overturue)
Map of the Problematique + medley outro
Supermassive Black Hole
Butterflies & Hurricanes
Back in Black intro / Star Spangled Banner / Hysteria / Back in Black Outro
Heartbreaker / Nishe / United States of Eurasia
“Helsinki Jam” / Undisclosed Desires
House of the Rising Sun / Time is Running Out
Stockholm Syndrome / Township Rebellion
Plug in Baby
Man with a Harmonica / Knights of Cydonia
In fitting contrast to Muse’s elaborate and detailed visuals, Rage Against the Machine demonstrated how they bring a town’s worth of people to ecstatic frenzy: raw, explosive stage presence. Singer Zack De La Rocha, guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk are—even nearly twenty years from their inception—an undeniable heavyweight onslaught of vital, urgent aggression. Unlike the bloated take from Immortal Technique earlier in the day, the band’s music did the talking for them. Their views clear, their stance without question. A small montage opened the set detailing the band’s famous and infamous moments (naked protests, arrests, early bad press) and they launched into The Battle of Los Angeles track “Testify.” The song’s “1984”-citing refrain, “Who controls the past now / controls the future / Who controls the present now / controls the past,” still an ominous interrogative on the dangers of control without oversight.
“Bombtrack” and “People of the Sun” showed some small signs of road rust. De La Rocha sounded winded in a couple of early moments, but this proved to be more a by-product of the band finding their comfort zone in this show. A trifecta of knockdown, freight train songs of fury had the crowd going positively ballistic. “Know Your Enemy” cemented Morello’s knack for interlocking pentatonic riffs, “Township Rebellion” allowed De La Rocha to show off his lyrical finesse (not to mention one of their very best call-and-response chants “Why stand on a silent platform? / Fight the war / Fuck the norm”) and “Bullet in the Head” erupted with revelatory, enrapturing power. The latter of which provoking no fewer than 16 simultaneous circle pits.
On the other hand, “Bulls on Parade” and “Down Rodeo” artfully depicted the band’s more colorful songcraft. Each brimmed over with Morello’s noise-laden wizardry and precision timing on behalf of the group’s rhythm section. Rarities “Calm Like a Bomb” and “Sleep Now in the Fire” gave just enough of a change-up from previous sets to keep this event special. RATM ended the night the only way imaginable, with the one-two punch and primal roar of “Freedom” straight into “Killing in the Name.” The crescendo on the finale of “Killing in the Name” is a mounting monstrosity. A cathartic release so urgent it will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Yes, one of the most vital lyrics of the last twenty years of rock-and-roll are the incendiary words of defiance found there, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”
For this event though, the final word goes to the hit played earlier, “Guerilla Radio.” The whisper-into-scream words, “It has to start somewhere / It has to start sometime / What better place than here? / What better time than now? / All / Hell / Can’t Stop us Now,” are the clearest synopsis of all that makes the band so important. In between the imposing presence of hard rock and the illuminated storytelling of hip-hop, the band have assembled a cut-up confrontation to the failings of the American experiment, complete with all the passion, valor and confidence necessary to drive such forward-thinking ideals home. Here’s to Rage Against the Machine for all their courage and here’s to hoping this is not their final performance.
Rage Against the Machine Set List:
People of the Sun
Know Your Enemy
Bulls on Parade
Bullet in the Head
Calm Like a Bomb
Sleep Now in the Fire
– encore –
Killing in the Name
All photos by Marv Watson