Live review: L.A. Rising with Rage Against the Machine and more
Those concerned about the misguided energies of rave kids, of the chaos that somehow manages to collide with mass-market electronic music at every turn, should be thankful that the Rage kids –- those in the Coliseum on Saturday night who are obsessed with the collected music and ideas of Rage Against the Machine -- haven’t yet combusted in the streets of L.A.
Because unlike the underlying philosophy of rave culture, at least as imagined in the scene’s “PLUR” mantra of “peace, love, unity, respect,” the anger and tension during Rage’s daylong music festival L.A. Rising in downtown L.A. was much more menacing and forceful than a bunch of dance freaks angry at the man for not being able to boogie on Hollywood Boulevard.
The Rage-curated bill featured British trio Muse, Chicago aggro-punk band Rise Against, masterful singer and rapper Lauryn Hill, Peruvian American rapper Immortal Technique and Monterrey, Mexico's El Gran Silencio. The nine-hour festival was the biggest music event held at the Coliseum since last summer’s Electric Daisy Carnival electronic music festival, which made headlines after the death of a 15-year-old girl and YouTube clips showed bloodied fans scaling Coliseum barriers to get onto the field. On Saturday, there was a heavy security and police presence all over the place.
Rage’s PLUR is more like protest, liberate, unify and revolt, and it’s a message that resonated at the Coliseum, no doubt because the band's crowd is right in the thick of things, economically speaking. Primarily comprising twenty- and thirtysomething blue-collar Angelenos that as a group have been hit hard by the recession, it’s a tribe that has asits spokesmen a band that formed in Los Angeles in 1991 while the city was simmering. As with two decades prior, it’s a demographic that sees before it an uncertain future and bears with it resentment at the mansions of Beverly Hills and all that they represent.
So when Rage Against the Machine lead singer-provocateur Zack de la Rocha stood before 60,000 people, raised his fist, barked out wicked smart, superbly flowed calls to action, pointed out the disparity between rich and poor, spit venom at the billionaires and wondered on their power, the sense of no future that has ignited unrest throughout the world in 2011 felt shockingly, palpably present.
To get a measure of the energy, all you had to do was watch the masses on the pitch, which held thousands of general-admission fans, as Rage entered and kicked into “Testify.” Packed tightly, seen from above the crowd on the field looked like a time-lapse satellite view of a swirling storm front. Mosh pits sprung as if out of nowhere, tropical depressions that collapsed into full-on hurricanes.
Then all of the sudden the sound went out –- silence that felt louder than anything coming out of the speakers previously–- and the energy shifted dangerously. The outage felt like a fuse, and as an audible heave of disappointment and impatience displaced Rage’s massive pounding, my initial reaction was one of fear –- somebody get this sound going or these people, many of whom had been baking in the sun for a few hours and then simmering through Muse, are going to blow up.
Luckily, the sound returned after a tense half-minute. Assuredly.
Over the years, Rage’s sound has gotten bigger and stronger. Early recordings, like “Killing in the Name," from the band’s 1992 self-titled debut, while potent on record, pale in comparison to what Rage has managed to pack into those songs now. It’s as though the songs were at the time too big for the band -- so packed with ideas that as the years have passed the band has grown into them.
Tom Morello’s guitar has always stabbed and barbed at the edges of the band’s heavy rhythm section, but as he’s gotten to know his weapon, his way with both whammy bar and wah-wah pedal has grown more precise and glistening. When he turns his hand cockeyed on the fretboard and makes a string scream, you can feel it. At the height of the night, a bonfire sprouted in the middle of one of the most active mosh pits, and it burned high for a few songs before security doused it. (The moment security left, flames rose again.)
Throughout the hour-and-15-minute set, Rage pulled its weight, proved itself to be one of the only rock bands on Earth able to captivate such a large space. Its conquest was so assured, in fact, that it jumped back in time to render an earlier set moot.
However much bombast Muse created in the slot prior, the British three-piece was the least dangerous act on the Coliseum pitch, a band so averse to groove that each time they found it, they impatiently waltzed away to further showcase their obviously impressive chops.
Though singer-guitarist-pianist Matthew Bellamy knows his way around a riff -- he quoted Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, the Animals and others during breaks between songs -- his band makes form-over-function rock, these architecturally grandiose musical structures that are as perfectly crafted as they are grooveless. Muse’s fan base no doubt disagrees; The thousands sang along to every lyrical cliché and gymnastic bridge, followed the band down every meandering path; when huge balloons were floated out into the crowd as the band meandered on, they bounced throughout the Coliseum until they exploded and dropped confetti.
Rise Against offered a sturdier brand of rock, more deliberate and working-class, and way heavier. Over the band’s dozen-year ascendance, lead singer-guitarist Tim McIlrath has become a confident, convincing presence, a torch-bearer of the Midwest’s oft-overlooked punk history. He and his band jumped and karate-kicked their way through highlights from across the band's catalog, most convincingly on "Architects."
Lauryn Hill killed it, even if much of the crowd was visibly ambivalent. Her set, which featured a nine-piece band that fused hard R&B and soul with heavy-duty Jamaican rhythms (and riddims), featured impressive reworkings of her classic material, both solo and as a third of the Fugees.
Hill, who had her sixth child last week, was none the worse for wear; on the contrary, her voice, though at times gruff, was filled with emotion; when she opened with a heavy version of “Killing Me Softly,” the bottom end reverberated throughout the bowl. In fact, her presence in downtown Los Angeles alongside Rage served to illustrate what a profound absence hers and the band’s creative voices have been.
Murmurings of new material from both may or may not ever pan out. But, especially in the case of Rage Against the Machine, its performance reinforced a notion that De la Rocha identified during a break between songs: There’s a lot of frustrated, suppressed energy in Los Angeles -- and it’s living inside a generation desperately looking for a voice, and an outlet.
-- Randall Roberts
Top photo: Zack de la Rocha, left,and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, which performed as part of L.A. Rising at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times
Middle photo: The L.A. Rising crowd. Credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times
Bottom photo: Rise Against guitarist Zach Blair leaps into the air as he performs with lead singer Tim McIlrath and Joe Principe at L.A. Rising. Credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times