Concert Review: Rage Against the Machine at the Hollywood Palladium

Rage Against The Machine
Wes Orshoski/Retna

Album sales at Epic: 10,986,000

The rap-rock originators rook their highly charged political message to the masses -- and the people bought it.

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.

The reunited quartet plays its first L.A.-area show in 10 years in support of Sound Strike, which is battling Arizona's new immigration law.

Hordes of police cruisers circled the Hollywood Palladium as people descended on the place. The men in blue were quite aware of the potential for disobedience civil or otherwise.

But whether because of or despite that, the crowd that turned out Friday for Rage Against the Machine's first hometown show in a decade was well behaved. The rare chance to see one of Los Angeles' handful of 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 played a benefit for Sound Strike, which is battling Arizona's new immigration law. 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 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." De la Rocha fairly seethed as he deployed the cautionary key lyric, "It's comin' back around again." 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.

Earlier, one fan spotted Rick Rubin in the wings, leading to chatter about him maybe producing a hoped-for new Rage album. The guy said matter-of-factly, "Steven Spielberg doesn't leave his house for just anything."

Rage Against the Machine remains in prime form, and a new record -- Rubin-produced or not -- would be among the most anticipated in years. Maybe this business in Arizona will inspire and stir the band to action in a studio. Let's hope so.

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.

Venue: Hollywood Palladium (Friday, July 23)

Set list:
People of the Sun 
Know Your Enemy 
Bulls on Parade 
Township Rebellion 
White Riot 
Bullet in the Head 
Calm Like a Bomb 
Guerrilla Radio 
Sleep Now in the Fire 
Wake Up 

Killing in the Name