By Erik Pedersen, Reuters
LOS ANGELES – Hordes of police cruisers circled the Hollywood Palladium on Friday as Rage Against the Machine played its first hometown show in a decade to protest Arizona’s new immigration law.
The men in blue were quite aware of the potential for disobedience civil or otherwise. But the rare chance to see one of Los Angeles’ greatest bands, especially in its natural habitat, must have outweighed any urge to stir things up.
Not that things weren’t incendiary inside the renovated old hall as the politically charged quartet took the stage: At the first beats of the opening Testify, mosh pits kicked up instantly, like sprinters leaving the blocks after the starting gun. And it was on.
Singer Zack de la Rocha’s spoken-spat vitriol provoked raised fists and voices. Tom Morello’s technically precise, Zeppelin-like riffs careened around the room. And the Palladium floor was like a single pulsating organism, with people not just jumping up and down but leaping.
But it wasn’t a flashpoint; it was a communal embrace. It was a night of protest rock ‘n’ roll in a pure form: angry, relevant lyrics over simple guitar-bass-drum tracks. And it was outstanding.
Rage’s songs are eerily topical and perfectly suited to protesting the Arizona law, which takes effect on Thursday. Just the titles of many in the set reflected the sentiment: Wake Up, Know Your Enemy, Calm Like a Bomb, Freedom. And the crowd shouted along with just about every line, though some were foiled by the Clash cover White Riot.
De la Rocha might be rock’s most one-dimensional star; his delivery doesn’t waver from song to song, album to album or show to show. But he’s also an original who somehow avoids sounding redundant, probably just by sheer force of will, passion and aggression. And he and the band sounded like they’d never left a notion overheard numerous times as the sweaty crowd filed out afterward.
He sang People of the Sun for “our brothers and sisters from Arizona, who we love very much.” Later, he lashed out at the Arizona law, imploring: “We can’t let this hatred affect the rest of the country. It’s not only a racist law, it’s a divisive law, and an insult.”
Sleep Now in the Fire got one of the night’s few extended jams, including a brief Brad Wilk drum solo. Morello turned his back on the crowd as he played one of his most famous leads. His meandering guitar line wended through Calm Like a Bomb like collateral damage. During that song — from 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles, Rage’s most recent album of originals an ancient art form synonymous with that decade was revived: crowd surfing.
The band played seven songs — including the final three — from its eponymous 1992 debut, and it was a testament to how well it has held up, even as the rap-metal subgenre it spawned flamed out a decade ago. On cue, the circle pits exploded during the brief instrumental break in Bullet in the Head.
De la Rocha got low on the stage as the encore began with Freedom but before long was bouncing around like the old days. The song’s classic rock break brought the old school to the new school via reform school, and it was all good.
He dedicated the final song to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Killing in the Name included the updated lyrics, “Some of those who burn crosses/Are the same that hold office.” The show ended with the repeated rant of “F— you, I won’t do what you tell me!” over a sea of impudently raised middle fingers. And Morello hurled his guitar into the wings. Message sent.
The miscast Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band had one of the most doomed-to-fail opening slots in memory. Apathy abounded among the Rage-ready crowd, with more people talking and texting than listening. Barely polite applause devolved into some postsong boos about a half-hour in, along with scattered shouts of “You suck!” often peppered with saltier language.