There are many great bands in the world, but it's what they do with their greatness that actually defines that word. Rage Against The Machine is a GREAT band, and all you needed as evidence of that fact was to be present at their L.A. Rising Festival at the gigantic Coliseum last Saturday.
Black flags flew over the Coliseum in the bright sunshine of the day, indicating the rock rebellion that was about to go down inside. Rage curated the entire day, from the performers (Mexico's El Gran Silencio, Immortal Technique, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Rise Against, Muse and Rage) to the many organizations participating in the "Re-Education Camp" on the grounds, to teach about the people working hard, without profit, to fight for our rights to remain a free and just country. There was a LOT going on.
I got there just in time to be amazed by Ms. Lauryn Hill. I wore her Miseducation... album OUT, so was thrilled to be seeing her live - and only one week after giving birth to her sixth child! She tore it up, and she and her band had a much heavier sound than I've ever heard recorded. She strutted about the stage in her knee-high white boots, looking hot, and stronger than ever.
"Killing Me Softly" was her opener, followed by "Everything is Everything", "The Sweetest Thing", "This Is Crazy", the Fugees fave, "Fu-Gee-La", Stevie Wonder's "Where Has My Love Gone?" ... all in firm command of the stage. You could tell she was feeling it, even if many of those down front were camped out waiting for hours for Rage, and kind of indifferent looking. "Ready Or Not" and her classic, "That Thing" closed out her set in the sun, and made me want to see a show that was just hers. Soon.
I'm sure many of the black t-shirt wearing (the dominant outfit of the day) teens there will think I'm an idiot, but I skipped watching Rise Against to go learn more about the different organizations in the Re-Education Camp working for positive change. I already knew a bunch of them, having worked with them on The Nightwatchman's Justice Tour, so it was a delight to visit them and catch up on the latest actions being taken.
As Rise Against was thundering away inside the stadium, the crowd was pretty light inside the Camp when I was there, but I was told it was busy all day. It gives you such hope to see tough looking kids in black standing there listening to someone tell them about Axis Of Justice or Jail Guitar Doors or the SEIU or the South Central Farmers or Iraq Veterans Against War or Food Not Bombs or the IWW or Amnesty International or It Gets Better or or or or ... all the "true headliners of the day", per the meaning it organizers.
There were over 40 booths to visit, all with some way to help make our world a better, more just place. It all felt especially timely with the whole Debt Ceiling deadline looming, our still being in unnecessary COSTLY (in lives and treasure) wars, rampant unemployment, and and and ... All sorts of ominous injustice everywhere that you could just go on about for days, but with organizations like these, and the eager, open ears and hearts of those in attendance at events like these ... well, there IS Hope, everyone! You could just feel it it in the air.
You could also feel crackling, electric excitement in the air, as I overheard people from all over the WORLD getting hyped up for Rage. People flew in for the show, as you hear a lot, "You never know if Rage will play again." But the crowd was heavily Los Angeleno, and they LOVE their Rage. For damn good reason. I re-connected with a bunch of friends, and though we've all seen Rage a lot, the excitement never dwindles a bit. On the contrary, it BUILDS, because we know what we're in for!
The sun set and the stadium darkened. I've never gotten into Muse really, as their anthem-y KROQ tunes always felt a little derivative to me, though exceptional in their musicianship (Oh, there's their Queen rip-off, Oh, there's the Zeppelin homage, etc ... Singer Matthew Bellamy even said at one point, "Rage is our favorite band since we were kids - we'll be playing more of their riffs later, of course") but I'll tell you what, they put on a great live show, and are much heavier than I would have previously given them credit for. Re-educated!
They played all their hits, with all the bells and whistles (lasers, morphing video graphics), and were super tight throughout. "Super Massive Black Hole" was awesome, and Bellamy would switch from crunching guitar riff to classical piano in the same song without missing a beat. Bassist/Guitarist Christopher Wolstenholme held it down with his blue lit guitar neck and drummer Dominic Howard was extra tight. A little "Back In Black" tease led into a "Star Spangled Banner" intro for the stoked crowd to their "I Want It Now" anthem. It was big. Mosh pit big.
I learned that "Undisclosed Desires" is a rad song (featuring Bellamy on the keytar) with rad lyrics. I also learned during "Could Be Wrong" that I could have been wrong about Muse. They're way more awesome than I ever knew.
"Black Holes and Revelations" was a big sing-along and "Time Is Running Out" was timely, as their set was almost over. Giant smoke plumes blasted out of the stage, big inflatable blood-shot eyeballs were released for the crowd to bounce around to each other, and Muse blazed away on the first song I ever knew of theirs, "Knights Of Cydonia". With the chorus of You and I must fight for our rights/You and I must fight to survive ... it was both the perfect lead-in to Rage, and a really good summary of the point of the entire day's event. Hey, Muse - I'm into it! Thanks.
A short breather up in the VIP (which I prefer to call Friends, as everyone is important) tent was had, and then it was time for our gang to be rounded up and escorted to the fenced in area in the midst of the floor crowd. Coming out of the tunnel and into the stadium was so HUGE feeling, there really aren't apt enough descriptors. The place was about to go OFF.
People were already screaming their heads off before anything happened, and then it went dark and one's ears may still be ringing today from the cacophony of jubilant noise that ensued. The video screens lit up with past Rage memories (naked at Lalapalooza; causing riots at the 2000 DNC; walking the WALK for 20 years!) and the screams grew even louder. Then shrill air raid sirens went off, and the black tapestry with the Rage star (book-ending the one at the other end of the Coliseum blocking off an entire section of seats) slowly rose above the stage. EVERY hand was in the air with either a fist or a camera phone.
"We're Rage Against The Machine from Los Angeles!!!" screamed Zack de la Rocha as Rage took the stage and tore right into "Testify". It was sheer pandemonium from those opening seconds to the last hand clap of the night, without one second to even try to catch your breath. There was a sound glitch at the very start and Zack's mic went out, and it felt scary for a moment, with police conspiracy, riots, power, anger all running through our heads in the long seconds before it got sorted out. And then it ruled, of course. Phew.
"Bombtrack" and its chorus of Burn, Burn, yes ya gonna burn! was damn right as a fire broke out/was set in a back of the floor mosh pit (of which there were many - in the double digits - swirling around the entire show ... now if we can just harness that energy for GOOD, we'll really get somewhere!), sending smoke high in the air and bringing emergency vehicles with lights flashing into the tunnels. It was a Holy Shit moment, for sure. (No need for beach ball eyeballs or pyrotechnics during Rage. They - or their fans - provide their own).
"People Of The Sun". "Know Your Enemy" (Timely as ever. Fight the war, fuck the norm ... What? Land of the Free? Whoever told you that is your enemy!). A pretty Morello guitar intro into an ominous, angry "Bulls On Parade" that had the whole place screaming, They rally round the family, with pockets full of shells!! and freaking out over another sick Morello solo. SICK!
"Township Rebellion". "Bullet In The Head" had everyone jumping how high. That's the thing with Rage songs ... every opening of every song makes everyone go nuts because every song is a total classic, and they all feel IMPORTANT. Because they are. It's a real education to just sit and read Zack's lyrics - do it sometime. He lays it all out, unflinchingly, not caring at all about offending or getting in trouble or having someone disagree, or whether it's marketable - just shoving the truths right down your throat with wit and laser intelligence. Then you have the tightest, heaviest band ever (Seriously. No one out there, 20 years later, can come close to the beats and rhythms created by Tom Morello, Timmy C., Brad Wilk and their instruments. No one.) to go along with Zack's wisdom - and you can see why they can fill a Coliseum. Probably 10 Coliseums.
"Down Rodeo" was massive and true. Then Zack yelled, "Let me see your fists up in the sky!" and thousands and thousands of them rose up into the L.A. night. Just in time for "Guerilla Radio", which certainly deserved them. Zack sat on the edge of the drum riser, professorially, and taught the masses that "ALL HELL CAN'T STOP US NOW!" And looking around at all the charged up faces and energy, you knew that to be the truth. People were going insane by now, and it only got crazier when Rage threw down "Calm Like A Bomb". That was intense, but they didn't let up for an eye-blink before blazing into "Sleep Now In The Fire". That double-whammy felt actually dangerous, as the intensity inside the Coliseum had grown so thick by now that you were simply forced to jump up and down as you screamed, The Nina, The Pinta, The Santa Maria, the noose and the rapist, the fields overseer, the agents of orange, the priests of Hiroshima, the cost of my desire, Sleep now in the fire! (Um ... still ... two days later ... only now humming it.) I could feel Tim's bass thumping in my heart, and the drum beats vibrating up through my feet into my entire body. A Rage show is a completely visceral experience. A heavy one.
"Wake Up" was incredible, and within it, Zack broke it down to address the crowd: "Brothers and Sisters, Thank you! It's a beautiful night in a beautiful city ... but there's a tension growing in the city ... Foreclosure signs stretch to the horizon ... fancy hotels being built downtown full of empty rooms while the homeless are outside ... Public education is being forced to pay for illegal wars ... (*I'm paraphrasing a bit as I was scribbling in the dark while being jostled and my notes are almost illegible, but it's roughly verbatim) ... L.A. is a city of rebellion ... In '92 People rose up ... and I hope to see you in the streets, because they belong to US!!!" And then all mayhem broke loose as they finished the jam and Zack screamed the rallying cry of "WAKE UP!!!!", finishing with the reminder that "What you reap is what you sow!"
With that, Rage left the stage and immediately the chants for more began. It was then that I turned around in a 360 to absorb the enormous scope of the whole place, filled with people, yelling for and wanting the same thing: More. But not just more from the band that we all loved. More for ourselves, more for our city, more for our country, and more for the world - all of us, as the whole that we are ... or could be. In that spinning moment, it really felt/feels possible.
But just for starters, we got more Rage. A Commie anthem rouser came on the speakers, the guys returned to the stage, Brad struck that cowbell, and it was time for "Freedom"! Anger is a gift, remember? It sure felt like it on this night anyway. But nothing in the entire day was as much of a gift as the closing number, the super epic, "Killing In The Name". As the familiar opening chords struck, a guy near me said, "Oh, NO!" and looking around, that's what it felt like. Like the entire place was going to self-combust. Now EVERYONE was moshing. EVERYONE's fists were raised. EVERYONE was together in it, going hoarse yelling "FUCK YOU, I won't do what you tell me!" so loud that you had to believe that we meant it.
And I hope we did. As the band came to the front of the stage, arms around each other, smiling, clapping back, raising their fists to the thousands raised before them, I was thrilled, yes, but also encouraged. That the energy and participation in the entire day's festival of music and information would serve its lasting purpose - to re-educate and re-invigorate the PEOPLE. Energize them to stand up and really fight the powers that be (governments, media, mean people, etc ...) and say/mean that "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!" so heartily sung at this show.
Backstage after the show, as we congratulated the band on a truly All. Time. Epic. Show (!!!), I kept thinking about what it means to be not just a great band, but great people. Using the massive platform Rage has to do good in the world. To help people lacking their bigass voice, and speak/play for THEM. To be out in the streets, actively fighting for a better world. To plan an event like L.A. Rising that forces their fans (really young - I saw babies, to really old - in wheelchairs ... what other band this heavy can say that?) to pay attention to the bigger picture around them. And make it cool to get involved with changing it for the much much better. As I said at the beginning of this story ... in my book, that makes Rage Against The Machine perhaps THE Greatest Band. Ever.
Now stop reading (thank you!) and don't just Rage. Go DO something about it all.