It’s been 11 years since Rage Against the Machine played a show.
The band’s return, at an at-capacity Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy on Saturday, couldn’t have come a moment too soon.
It was supposed to happen in 2020; the reunion tour was timed to precede the U.S. presidential election. Starting two years later than planned because of COVID-19, the tour began with the state of the country still a Dumpster fire, and Rage and their fans have a growing number of issues to be enraged about.
And one of their largest targets Saturday, not surprisingly, was the U.S. Supreme Court, specifically the court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade June 24.
“Forced birth in a country that is the only wealthy country in the world without any guaranteed paid parental leave at the national level,” read a caption on the screen as Zack de La Rocha unleashed growls, “yeahs” and calls for “freedom” over guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk’s accelerating rhythm.
“Forced birth in a country where Black birth-givers experience maternal mortality two to three times higher than that of white birth-givers,” the captions continued. “Forced birth in a country where gun violence is the number one cause of death among children and teenagers.”
And then, in all caps: “ABORT THE SUPREME COURT.”
It was the most specific political statement the band made Saturday. No one in the band made any speeches across their 90-minute set. But they channeled their fury through their visceral music, which sounded as urgent as it ever has — despite the fact that none of the 18 songs touched on Saturday were created in the 21st century.
In fact, one of the few things De La Rocha said Saturday outside of singing or rapping duties was “Turn that bass up,” at the start of the night’s second song, “People of the Sun,” one of five tracks played at Alpine from 1996’s sophomore album “Evil Empire.”
Bear in mind, the bass, the drums, the guitar, De La Rocha’s screams, everything was already really loud for opening number “Bombtrack” — appropriately, the first song on the band’s 30-year-old self-titled debut album, which had the largest share of the setlist with seven tracks — and you could see the energy surging from the stage through the explosive mosh pit up to the sea of people on the hill at the outdoor amphitheater.
But the band wanted to push the volume, the fury, everything, to the very brink.
For “Bulls on Parade” — which came right after “People of the Sun,” so Commerford’s crucial bass rumbles were very loud, practically vibrating in your chest — Morello interrupted his charging guitar to violently run his fingers all along its neck, the sound resembling record scratches.
Morello got even flashier from there, shredding the guitar with his teeth for the subsequent “Bullet in the Head.” For “Testify,” one of five songs performed Saturday from Rage’s final all-original studio album, 1999’s “The Battle of Los Angeles,” Morello yanked out the guitar cord and slammed the end into his palm, creating spiky squeals that sounded like Morse code being sent to an alien planet.
That guitar stunt involving Morello’s chompers, for virtually every band, would be the grand finale. For Rage, it was merely a fleeting peak for an early number, with Wilk’s drums brilliantly bringing the intensity down to a simmer, before the band (and fans) rose up for an even more intense finish underneath De La Rocha’s murderous screams of “A bullet in your head.”
As good as Rage was at, well, raging, the band understood that calmer, seething moments were just as powerful. And in that regard, De La Rocha was a critical conduit.
Sure, the band’s doomsday preacher unleashed screams from hell, stomped across the stage, punched the air, banged his head. (His hair’s a touch trimmer now, the most apparent physical difference among the band from 2011.)
But De La Rocha was just as riveting squatting by Wilk’s drum kit, quietly repeating “I think I heard a shot” over and over during the edgy bridge for “Wake Up.” It made the finish that much more intense, with the frontman rising up to his feet to holler the song’s title again and again for the climactic finish, before cutting through the noise with those urgent closing lyrics: “How long? Not long/’Cause what you reap is what you sow.”
There was only one song where a more reserved De La Rocha didn’t gel, a surprisingly underwhelming “Sleep Now in the Fire.” His out-of-place smile, a static stage presence, the more slack vocal delivery, the lack of the recording’s climactic scream, it all detracted from the musical inferno De La Rocha’s bandmates were conjuring.
But for the show’s final number “Killing in the Name” — their response to the Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King in 1991 — De La Rocha sounded even more irate than he did on the original, seemingly flabbergasted that the police brutality of Black people he sang about 30 years ago is still happening today.
And for the performance at Alpine, De La Rocha slightly tweaked the lyrics toward the end, transforming the song into a broader condemnation of systemic racism, adding that there some “politicians,” not just “some people who work forces,” who also “burn crosses.”
There hasn’t been original Rage music in 23 years. Until this weekend, there hadn’t been a Rage show since 2011.
But judging by the band’s urgent comeback concert Saturday, it’s clear they feel that there is still so much work to be done.
Run the Jewels remarkable with opening set
Probably the last song you’d ever expect to hear at a Rage show is “We Are the World,” but hip-hop supergroup Run the Jewels had a good laugh using the ballad as their walk-up music for their 45-minute set.
“Take a look,” El-P said at one point to his partner in rhyme Killer Mike. “There’s 30,000 people who have been holding their tickets for two years.”
They repeatedly expressed their gratitude to be opening for Rage, and they performed like they’d been training for this set every day for the past three years. Their vibrant delivery and ceaseless swagger for “Legend Has It,” “Close Your Eyes” and other Jewels gems was matched by rigorous beats and cutting turntable chops supplied by their Madison-born DJ Trapstar (real name Gabe Moskoff).
This was largely a fun dance party peppered with plenty of amusing Dad jokes, but toward the set’s end, El-P dedicated a song to “people who unjustly lost their lives at the hands of people paid to protect them.”
The song was the sobering, staggering “Walking in the Snow” from the 2020 album “RTJ4.”
“Every day on evening news they feed you fear for free,” Killer Mike rapped. “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/‘Til my voice goes from a shriek to a whisper, ‘I can’t breathe.’”
The song actually was written before George Floyd was murdered — and a sentiment that tragically hasn’t lost an inch of its relevance.
“It doesn’t matter what color you are, it doesn’t matter your sex, it doesn’t matter your ethnic origin, it is always us versus them,” Killer Mike said after the song. “Always us versus the (expletive) powerful.”
For one night at least, Run the Jewels, speaking truth to power, made the “us” feel more empowered.
2. “People of the Sun”
3. “Bulls on Parade”
4. “Bullet in the Head”
6. “Tire Me”
7. “Wake Up”
8. “Guerrilla Radio”
9. “Without a Face”
10. “Know Your Enemy”
11. “Calm Like a Bomb”
12. “Sleep Now in the Fire”
13. “War Within a Breath”
14. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (Bruce Springsteen cover)
15. “Freedom”/“Township Rebellion”
16. “Killing in the Name”
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