"L.A. is the city that we love, and it's got rebellion in its blood!" declared Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha to the roaring, swirling masses gathered for the band's L.A. Rising festival at the city's Coliseum on Saturday, sounding off a new phase in the band's Battle of Los Angeles.
Rage Against the Machine created the nine-hour L.A. Rising festival as a hometown show of force and a renewed statement of purpose. Joining them on the site of the 1932 and 1984 Summer Olympics were Muse, Rise Against, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Immortal Technique and El Gran Silencio – and a "Re-Education Camp" with 42 activist groups on war, poverty, labor and immigration. L.A. Rising was Rage's first major concert in Los Angeles in a decade (aside from an immigration rights benefit last year at the much smaller Hollywood Palladium), and is the band's only scheduled live performance for 2011.
The words came during an extended jam in the middle of "Wake Up," as the singer-rapper railed against "illegal wars," homelessness and "foreclosure signs that stretch to the horizon." He urged fans back into the streets just as the band erupted again with a blast of thundering funk and hard-rock, and the crowd joined De la Rocha as he snarled the enraged closing lyric: "What you reap is what you sow!"
Backstage before Rage's set, bassist Tim Commerford said the band – reunited since 2007 – is a fully operational unit again, with significant plans sketched out for the next two years. Wearing a gray hoodie, Commerford said recent rehearsals for the festival stretched beyond the band's catalog to create some new musical ideas. "We were jamming, and Zack was throwing freestyles. That's how we write music," he said. "To me that's exciting."
None of those new sounds emerged at the concert. Rage's 90-minute set began dramatically with the lighting of the Olympic torch high above the stadium – an epic and rare use of pyro by the fiery quartet. De la Rocha had barely sung his first enraged syllable of "Testify" when his microphone cut out, leading to some tense moments as the band played on, but quickly cut back in for the remainder of an otherwise glitch-free performance.
A look of joy crossed the singer's bearded face during Commerford's rippling bass on "Bombtrack," while "Bulls On Parade" showcased guitarist Tom Morello's mad scientist riffs of stuttering, scratching effects, as mosh-pits rose like human whirlpools across the stadium floor. That's one way to release a city's tension.
Muse wasn't music to mosh by, but arrived with a big sound and bigger production. The British trio (joined onstage by keyboardist Morgan Nicholls) opened with rich waves of sound that built into "Uprising," and lyrics that shared some themes with Rage: "Rise up and take the power back, it's time that the fat cats had a heart attack . . ."
The agit-pop unfolded further amid the very Queen-like "United States of Eurasia," an operative rocker sung by frontman Matthew Bellamy from behind a grand piano. There were more classic rock flourishes to "Time is Running Out," as Bellamy roamed a stage that looked like something from Tron: Legacy, with flashing lights and grids, digital animation, laser-beams and geysers of white fog.
The day began with daytime sets from the rootsy "freestyle norteño" of El Gran Silencio, from Monterey, Mexico, and the revolutionary rapper Immortal Technique. By mid-afternoon, Ms. Lauryn Hill wasn't about to have her soul, reggae and hip-hop set overpowered by the day's rockers, so she cranked it up with more volume and heavy basslines from rock/hip-hop vet Doug Wimbish. It was sometimes a little noisy for music of such emotional subtlety, but her elegant, soulful wail cut through on the Fugees' "Ready or Not" and her own "Everything is Everything," hitting the stage just one week after giving birth to her sixth child.
Third-billed Rise Against ripped up a muscular set of melodic, confrontational punk in the pissed-off political tradition of Bad Religion. The Chicago band's most moving moment came when singer Tim McIlrath picked up an acoustic guitar for a stark "Hero of War," dedicated to Iraq Veterans Against the War, among the activist groups in attendance.
"They're not giving you henna tattoos and they're not selling you churros," McIlrath told the crowd of the many on-site causes, from Amnesty International and Greenpeace to Jail Guitar Doors, which provides musical instruments to prisoners. "I'm proud to stand here among this many people who still give a shit about the future."