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Live Review: One Day As a Lion at Eagle Rock's Center for the Arts

July 19, 2010 | 12:59 pm


When the stage crew set up a large screen behind the small stage at the former Carnegie library that is now home to the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock, audience members might have anticipated some sweet multimedia. One Day As a Lion, the project combining the talents of Rage Against the Machine town crier Zack de la Rocha and ex-Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore, was about to play its second-ever live show. A barrage of images, maybe ripped from news sites on the Web, would complement the band's political lyrics and multi-directional avant-rock sound.

The screen remained blank, though, after De La Rocha, Theodore and keyboardist Joey Karam tromped onstage to excited applause and began a 40-minute set. It was merely there to block the sunlight streaming through the large glazed window behind the band. The late-afternoon sun still found its way in, lending a beatific glow to De la Rocha's wiry mop of hair. He looked about as happy as a restless 40-year-old rock star could be.

One Day As a Lion released an EP in 2008, but didn't play any live shows. It seemed that the project might only serve as an experiment for its two principals -- a kind of two-man retreat through which each would rethink the already challenging rock sounds they'd already developed in their better-known groups. But this set and the one ODAAL performed the previous afternoon in Pomona featured new music alongside the song from their debut -- and a new member, Karam, who freed De la Rocha from his own keyboard, allowing him to step out and stir up the crowd while delivering his rapid-fire verbal flow. This trio was fully armed for present and future assaults.

The noise the players made was even edgier and more confrontational than their studio material. Theodore's drums led the way. A stunningly fast trapmaster who favors sharp, crooked rhythms, he made patterns sometimes redolent of hard-core punk and sometimes closer to free jazz. Karam's keyboards added edge and color that pushed the music toward the same grimy territory M.I.A. explores on her latest album, Maya -- I found myself wondering if the ODAAL EP was an unheralded inspiration for the hot-button singer's new work. Suicide, the minimalist synth-rock duo M.I.A. sampled on her song "Born Free," often came to mind as ODAAL performed.

On top of this sonic pile of barbed wire, de la Rocha did his usual dance with renewed aggression. His lyrics in ODAAL don't veer too far from what he offers in Rage Against the Machine -- in songs like "Wild International" and "Ocean View," he turned hip-hop boasting into a form of prophecy, calling out corrupt clerics and government agents while declaring his music a call to action. His fans, many clad in political T-shirts with slogans such as "Do I Look Illegal To You?," relished his every revolutionary word.

De la Rocha explored new vocal possibilities within this new musical framework. He sang more, achieving an almost Bob Marley-esque clarity on one new song, and screeching mightily in another. Without Tom Morello's gatling-gun guitar and the plutonium-weight Rage rhythm section behind him, de la Rocha seemed freer, if not always as powerfully directed.

One Day As a Lion will likely never have the radio hits that Rage has enjoyed; this weekend of debuts, offered in community-oriented venues to crowds of less than 500, suggests that this group intends to remain grassroots and exploratory. That's good for De la Rocha, whose seven-year break from Rage earlier this decade was partly motivated by his longing to find a way to craft messages that would inspire without becoming hackneyed. ODAAL gives him that chance; live as on record, it's a project that stimulates thought as much as fist-pumping. Multimedia remains optional.

-- Ann Powers

Photo credit: Epitaph Records / Robbie Lloyd

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