When Rage Against the Machine played at Woodstock '99 this summer, their electrifying set reminded anyone who wasn't too wasted to notice that when it comes to the increasingly popular blend of hip-hop and heavy metal, nobody does it better.
It's a point that needed reinforcing. After all, it's been three years since Rage's second album, Evil Empire
, and the dullness of certain recent bands', uh, Limp or Korn-y versions of funk-metal could easily have erased fonder memories of what rock music's most cathartic form sounds like when it's done right.
So Rage's right-as-rain Saturday night show at Manhattan's Roseland Ballroom didn't just preview their new album, The Battle of Los Angeles
, but was also well-timed to reassure any fans experiencing a loss of faith in their chosen kind of rock & roll heaven.
The vast majority of the crowd at Roseland was too eager for Rage's set to give opening act Public Enemy the attention they deserved. Despite their best efforts to coax the audience to throw their hands in the air and wave them like they just didn't care, they, well, just didn't care. From the get-go, it was obvious that everyone was pretty impatient for the main attraction. As P.E. wrapped up "Crayola," from their recent album There's a Poison Goin On
, one annoyed audience member shouted "Good night! Get off the stage, Public Enemy!"
Even so, P.E. kept their set bouncing, with Chuck D's vehement rapping and Flavor Flav's ever-funny sidekick schtick. Plus, stand-in deckman DJ Aswad pulled off some amazing wax tricks. Overall, "Bring Da Noise" and "41:19" -- a cut dealing with the shooting of Amadou Diallo -- provided some of the most rousing moments of P.E.'s performance. Yet Flav reinforced the general sentiment of the crowd when he announced Rage's imminent appearance and added: "I will stick around to see these motherf--ckers too."
The sticking around took nearly as long as P.E.'s performance had lasted, and during the long wait between sets, one of the many shirtless, sinewy young men in what would soon become a raging mosh pit climbed onto the shoulders of his buddy and stood above the crowd. Security officers began flashing their lights on him to signal their disapproval, but he just stretched his arms out and waited for the band to appear. It was a triumphant moment for the whole crowd, for whom this one stubborn young puck represented the excitement and rebellion uniting them.
Our hero dismounted as the band launched into their set, tearing through "Testify," the new album's lead track. The song may have been unfamiliar, but the audience was instantly rapt, bobbing their heads along with the bass-led track as frontman Zach de la Rocha hopped around on stage, shook his raggedy dreadlocks and screamed into the microphone.
Between songs, de la Rocha didn't utter a single word -- not a song title, not a "Thanks New York," nothing. The set didn't flow perfectly smoothly -- the guitars were too quiet for the first couple songs, the breaks between numbers were often too long, and bassist Timmy C. had to retune more than once. But the band's amazing energy was so infectious that, as the audience sweated, hollered and thrashed their heads to the eleven-song set, they didn't seem to notice a glitch.
The set was divided rather evenly between new songs and old. Following "Testify," the band barreled through new single "Guerilla Radio," "Sleep Now in the Fire," "Calm Like a Bomb," and "Born of a Broken Man," with only their first album's "Bullet in the Head" thrown in for good measure. That oldie's affect on the crowd was astonishing; when de la Rocha stopped singing, the crowd chanted "They say jump, you say how high" loud enough that their voices filled the cavernous ballroom.
It was a moment that repeated over and over again during the second half of the set, when the band played only its tried-and-true numbers. Every time a familiar riff cut the silence between songs, a stream of sweaty, bare-chested dudes shoved forward in a hurry to get to the pit, reminding me that to be a girl at a Rage show is an unenviable position, even if you're wearing comfortable shoes.
This was a crowd of diehards who knew not just the hooks and choruses to songs like "Killing in the Name" or "Bulls on Parade," but knew every single utterance, from the barely comprehensible rhymes that de la Rocha spits out, to the "Uggh"s and "Yeah!"s that crop up so frequently in Rage songs. It was like being in church, with de la Rocha's political evangelism evoking ecstatic hosannas from the worshipful congregation.
In an awe-inspiring moment during "Killing," flood lights pointing away from the stage made the band invisible and illuminated the thousands of middle fingers pumping in the air along with de la Rocha's condemnatory rant: "F--k you, I won't do what you tell me."
It was a moment that prompts one to wonder how much of the band's political message sinks in with its fans. As they flipped the bird en masse to some invisible energy, were they really showing support for the band's stance on certain pet issues? Or were they expressing their contempt for more local authorities, like their parents, teachers and bosses?
The still more important question is whether it even matters how many members of the crowd are fledgling proselytizers. Regardless of their political savvy, the fans were, for barely an hour, united by their sense of alienation and discontentment. "Anger is a gift," de la Rocha sings in "Freedom," the set's lone encore number. And, tonight, Rage was Santa Claus, giving plentifully and then disappearing in a wink.
Rage Against the Machine's set list:
2. Guerilla Radio
3. Bullet in Your Head
4. Sleep Now in the Fire
5. Calm Like a Bomb
6. Born of a Broken Man
7. People of the Sun
8. Know Your Enemy
9. Bulls on Parade
10. Killing in the Name
11. Freedom (encore)
Written by JENNY ELISCU for RollingStone.com News