Near the end of Rage Against the Machine’s first concert in 11 years, frontman Zack de la Rocha walked to the tip of the stage, squinted his eyes shut, and roared out the “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” climax of “Killing In The Name” as roughly 30,000 fans screamed along in unison, several of them crowd surfing right at his feet despite looking about 20 years too old for such an activity.
It was a cathartic moment Rage fans have been waiting to experience ever since the band announced this tour back in 2019, and then bumped it back several times due to the pandemic. The original plan was to start at a small arena near the border in El Paso, Texas, but they wound up kicking things off at Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin, which holds 37,000 people and appeared to be pretty near capacity.
Most bands over two decades removed from their last album that had already spent considerable time on the reunion circuit wouldn’t generate much attention for another round of amphitheater and arena dates, but Rage Against the Machine are a very unique case and this tour has sold out all over the country. They’re not only one of the most thrilling live acts in rock history, mashing together rap and rock into a completely unique fusion, their politically-charged music was decades ahead of its time and feels almost custom-made for this exact moment.
After an energetic set by opening act Run the Jewels, Rage kicked off their performance with an explosive rendition of “Bombtrack” from their 1992 self-titled LP. Zack de la Rocha has rarely been seen in public over the past decade, but he clearly put in his work before this tour since he was in near-flawless vocal form and had boundless energy, looking at least a decade younger than his 52 years. They followed with “People of the Sun” and “Bulls on Parade,” sending the crowd into an absolute frenzy.
Over the next 90 minutes, the group plowed through another 13 songs, leaving the stage occasionally to present chilling images on the screens, including an El Paso police car on fire, a helicopter descending on a group of helpless refugees in a boat, and a stern Border Patrol agent standing near a drone and German Shepherd. Highlights included a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which they hadn’t played since 2000, a frenetic “Guerrilla Radio,” and a wild “War Within a Breath.”
Guitarist Tom Morello, drummer Brad Wilk, and bassist Tim Commerford have played many of these songs with both Chris Cornell in Audioslave and Chuck D and B-Real in Prophets of Rage, but none of them delivered them remotely like de la Rocha. It might be unfair to compare the other groups to Jimmy Page’s Zeppelin-heavy tour with David Coverdale or the Cars re-branding themselves as the New Cars with Todd Rundgren at the helm instead of Ric Ocasek, but not wildly so.
At no point during the show did any member of the group address the crowd or their long absence from the stage, though Morello, who can still make his guitar sound like everything from a siren to a turntable, wore an “I Love CRT” shirt during the final few songs, and “Abort the Supreme Court” appeared on the screen. The group may have some right-wing fans, including former House Speaker Paul Ryan, but this was not a show for them. (The guy near me wearing an “I Love Guns, Titties, and Beer” shirt was having a grand time, though.)
Rage Against the Machine had a weird habit of only existing when Americans were least open to their revolutionary message. Their initial run of 1991 to 2000 tracked almost perfectly with the post-Cold War/pre-9/11 period when Bill Clinton was president, the economy was booming, and the gradual right-wing tilt of the country was invisible to most Americans. They came back at the dawn of the Obama era during a brief moment of optimism and last played four years before Trump came down the escalator and kicked off his presidential run.
In other words, they’ve been gone a really, really long time and missed a lot of moments we were quite ready to rage against. They finally have the timing right this time, so let’s hope this reunion lasts longer than this tour. The next few years are probably going to really suck. We’re going to need them.