“Good evening,” Zack de la Rocha said on Sunday night, looking out at the 50,000 or so people gathered in front of Coachella’s main stage. “We are Rage Against the Machine, from Los Angeles, California.” With that, guitarist Tom Morello — wearing a baseball band emblazoned with the word “Unite” — kicked into the winding riff of “Testify,” beginning Rage’s first concert in seven years. De La Rocha rapped with so much force that his microphone distorted as he enunciated every word of the lyrics, which were written about the first Gulf War but sounded eerily current: “Baghdad is burning/ The war is right outside your door!”
There were signs that this reunion may be fragile: the band didn’t display much affection for each other on stage, with Morello and de la Rocha never quite making eye contact. While they didn’t add anything new to their their hip-hop Zeppelin sound, they did pick up right where they left off, playing with a fierce sense of mission. De la Rocha, who cut off his dreads and grew a modest afro during his years in the wilderness, was short on small talk: One of the few signs that he might have been enjoying himself came when he yelled, “Yes indeed!” during the opening of “Guerilla Radio.” “What better place than here,” he rapped on that song, letting the crowd supply the all-too-appropriate next line: “What better time than now?”
During the final pre-encore song, “Wake Up,” de la Rocha finally spoke to the crowd at length, spitting a furious political rant that began by suggesting that every U.S. president should have been hung for war crimes. “This current administration is no exception — they should be hung and tried and shot,” he said, during the song’s breakdown. “But the challenges we face go beyond the current administration. It’s not a system that changes every four years.. It’s a system we have to tear down, generation after generation.” The band moved back into the main riff, while de la Rocha screamed “Wake up!”
The set concluded with Rage’s masterpiece, “Killing In The Name,” which reached a predictable peak as de la Rocha and the crowd shouted “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” again and again. While there were vague rumors of a post-Rage riot floating around the festival — some of the police officers on site even had pellet guns ready — the show ended as peacefully as any other year, with exhausted, sunburned fans simply trudging towards the dusty parking lots.