Aspen Times Weekly: Raging Again at Red Rocks
When Prophets of Rage announced its formation in May along with a “Make America Rage Again” tour that would begin with a protest at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, guitarist Tom Morello called the politically motivated supergroup and its tour “a historical necessity.”
Bringing together three-fourths of Rage Against the Machine with DJ Lord and Chuck D of Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill, the activist band’s stated aim is to catalyze a revolution in this season of electoral insanity and social upheaval.
“This is not just music, this is a movement,” Morello was quoted
When Prophets came to Red Rocks Ampitheatre on Sept. 7, they put on a fierce show fueled by powerhouse renditions of Rage Against the Machine songs, peppered with Public Enemy and Cypress Hill tracks and a few covers.
But was revolution really in the air? I kept wondering during the show whether the 9,000-plus people in the crowd were there to fight the power or whether they just wanted to sing and scream along with a nostalgia act trotting out old hits.
I expected protests in Denver accompanying the tour. There were none. I expected a parking lot filled with advocacy groups, activists handing out flyers, revolutionaries on soapboxes with bullhorns and raised fists. Instead it was the usual rock show tailgate scene.
The music from the stage, of course, raged against institutional racism, police brutality, the military-industrial complex and other parts of the proverbial machine. And, musically, the band gave a tremendously powerful cross-genre performance with a message. But maybe I wanted more than a great rock show. Maybe I’d come to expect more. As a teenager, for instance, I’d gone to Rage’s infamous 1999 benefit for Death Row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, when the governor and police leaders (and, more importantly for me at the time, my parents) deemed the band dangerous and radical insurgents and tried to shut the concert down. Being there, supporting the band and Mumia, felt like it mattered somehow. I didn’t get that feeling seeing Prophets of Rage.
Prophets did offer intermittent commentary from the stage. Chuck D asked at one point, “Trump and Hillary, what the f-ck?” B-Real urged the crowd to “Stay woke.” And Morello exhorted the audience to take action in their own communities and noted that proceeds from the Red Rocks show would support the Food Bank of the Rockies: “The world is going to change, but it’s up to you. So aim for the world you want.”
Whether or not this tour is having any meaningful impact outside the arenas it’s playing may be beside the point, though. The band’s ferocious set tore through Rage, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill songs that kept the crowd screaming, pumping fists and generally losing it for just over 90 minutes. DJ Lord opened with “The Star Spangled Banner” (for which, yes, everybody in the crowd seemed to stand). The band joined him on-stage, opening with an inspired hard rock arrangement of Public Enemy’s “Prophets of Rage” followed by Rage’s “Guerilla Radio” and “Bombtrack” and Public Enemy’s “She Watch Channel Zero.”
Chuck D and B-Real’s dual vocals did Zack de la Rocha justice on the Rage songs that made up the bulk of the set, especially on “People of the Sun,” “Testify” and the explosive show-closing combo of “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name.” D’s crisp and authoritative delivery, matched with B-Real’s nasal rap tone, hit both registers of de la Rocha’s intense and inimitable style. Vocally, the only place they fell short was in the crescendo growls and barbaric yawps on songs like “Take the Power Back” and “Bombtrack.” Nobody else can quite pull that off with the passion and, sure, rage of de la Rocha (who, the morning after the Red Rocks show, released a new single, again teasing the long-awaited solo album that’s been rumored since Rage broke up in 2000).
A high point of the show was the Prophets’ mash-up of the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” with Lord spinning beats, Brad Wilk matching him on drums and Chuck D and B-Real trading vocals as Morello scratch-played his guitar (which was emblazoned with “Arm the Homeless” on one side and “Nobody for President” on the other). The band debuted the reworked Beasties song in May as the RNC-themed “No Sleep Til Cleveland.”
The energy and purpose of the show flagged only during an unfortunate six-song medley of Cypress Hill and Public Enemy tracks, during which B-Real and Chuck D walked into the audience and the three Rage guys walked off stage for a break. The medley reduced Public Enemy classics like “Welcome to the Terrordome” and “Can’t Truss It” and Cypress Hill songs like “Insane in the Membrane” to just a few perfunctory lines as crowd members snapped selfies with the singers. I guess the idea was that these songs were best served without the full band treatment, or that truncating them would allow time for more of the Rage Against the Machine material the crowd was yearning to hear. Either way, the set would be better off without this interlude. And why not put the band to work on interpreting them? Morello is a wizard who can seemingly wrest any sound from his guitar — why not let us see how he might score these tracks?
Prophets of Rage may not be the movement it aimed to become, but the band did put on a moving show at Red Rocks. And it did convince me that these Rage Against the Machine songs need to live on, whether or not the band does — at this point they’re part of a fabric of righteous American protest music alongside Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger and Nina Simone and Public Enemy. We’ve needed them often since Rage went silent in 2000. And if Zack de la Rocha had to sit out this election season, there are no better stand-ins — politically and artistically — than Chuck D and B-Real.
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