A red star banner arose from the back of the stage while crimson lights shone overhead and air raid sirens blared. It was all intended to show that whenever Rage Against The Machine performs live, it’s an event. Even though the PA system failed vocalist Zack de la Rocha during the opener, “Testify,” it’s unlikely even hell could have stopped him and his band mates from being heard. These that rage against the machine do not go gently into the night.
Dressed in a red (of course) button shirt, de la Rocha led the confrontational quartet through a powerful 12-song performance (along with two encores) in the closing set of its L.A. Rising Festival. The singer spoke little from the stage, such as introducing “Bullet in the Head,” but Rage Against The Machine said volumes with its music. The band’s songs about social justice, like closer “Killing in the Name,” never lose their power to agitate and motivate. Every act on this multifaceted bill mixes politics with art, but none does it better than Rage Against The Machine. Its potent one-two punch of de la Rocha’s Chuck D.-esque vocals and Tom Morello’s ever-inventive guitar work still make lesser acts green with envy; especially tonight as the group noisily painted its hometown blood red.
Muse, which preceded Rage Against The Machine, seemed a little like the odd man out because the DREAM Act bill, an US legislative proposal that would provide conditional permanent residency to certain illegal alien students of good moral character who graduate from US schools, was the hottest political topic promoted from stage. It’s certainly hotter in Hispanic-dominated Los Angeles, than it is in, say, the UK where Muse is from. This was, after all, a show opened by El Gran Silencio, a Mexican ska band – one that even sported an accordion player! – and rap music from Immortal Technique that reminded everybody that because many Hispanic parents name their son’s ‘Jesus,’ it proves how close they are to God. Even being alien-ist of them all, Muse proved once again why it’s a must-see live act. By performing “Uprising” early on, and finishing up with “Knights of Cydonia,” Muse just kept the radio hits coming. With its multiple laser lights shooting out from the stage, Muse was also the most visual act of the day. However, Muse’s political lyrics are sometimes so generic; they easily fit into many different situations. “Uprising” can give inspiration to any political struggle. Even so, Muse’s songs would still be so much better if they were even a little more specific.
Rise Against is a bit of a one trick pony, musically speaking at least. The band plays a slightly catchy, but highly limited style of angry punk rock, which gets old quickly – even in an approximately hour long set. However, tonight when the group dedicated the acoustic “Hero of War” to AVAW, a group of war Afghanistan veteran anti-war activists – which were also represented by a booth on the grounds, along with a large collection of other socially active groups – it was a welcome, soft breather from the band’s usually loud buzz saw noise.
Ms. Lauryn Hill presumably gave birth just one week before this concert, yet she looked great and was fully engaged on stage. It’s too bad, then, that the sound was so muddy and overly voluminous. Sound issues made it particularly difficult to appreciate an eclectic set list that included two Stevie Wonder covers, including “Jammin’.”
In between sets, the liberal PSAs were shown on big screens. Many of these were targeted at local SoCal issues. It’s difficult to estimate how effective these messages were, particularly in a stadium of drunken rock fans. It was also disappointing to see all the empty seats in the venue. In this troublesome economy, even rare Rage Against The Machine performances can struggle to come out in the black.