TVD Live: Prophets of Rage and Awolnation at EagleBank Arena, 8/19

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | The use of music as a medium to react to politics and injustice is not a new idea. Tracing back to Irish folk songs and bard’s tales from ages ago, to Baez and Dylan’s antiwar folk movement of the ‘60s, to Black Sabbath’s metallic railings against a conformist society in the ‘70s, the message has been the same, even though the method of delivery has varied. As the ‘80s were drawing to a close and the ‘90s approached, two of the biggest voices of musical revolution were Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine. Whether it was Chuck D’s unmistakable baritone demanding that the masses “Fight the Power” or the fury of Zach de la Rocha’s cry for justice, the face of rebellion in music was forever changed.

If there was ever a right time to bring these outspoken musical forces together to make a statement, that time is now. With the election right around the corner, America has turned into a polarized, partisan, daily minefield of he-said-she-said rhetoric. Thus, the Prophets of Rage were born.

The idea was simple, yet effective. First, you have three of the four members of Rage Against the Machine (singer Zach de la Rocha declined to participate but gave his blessing). Filling his shoes is the aforementioned Chuck D of Public Enemy, B-Real of Cypress Hill, and DJ Lord, also from Public Enemy on turntables. All the pieces were in place, and after some rehearsal time and two performances in Los Angeles and Cleveland (coincidentally at the same time and in the vicinity of the GOP Convention), the “Make America Rage Again” tour was ready to launch at EagleBank Arena in the DC suburb of Fairfax, VA.

The show opened with the relatively unknown Wakrat, the side project of Rage/Prophets bassist Tim Commerford. A short set of angsty pop-punk, unfortunately brought down by Commerford’s off-key vocals. I was surprised to find that the vocals were not as bad on the studio tracks, so this was potentially a lack of live preparation or studio trickery. This remains to be seen as the tour rolls on.

In the oddest moment of the night, electro-rockers AWOLNATION followed with a spirited set. I say oddest moment solely because musically and thematically, they seemed a bit out of place supporting the politically charged headliner. In a bit of an identity crisis, their style would turn on a dime, ranging from keyboard-driven pop to chugging metal riffs, sometimes within the same song. Their performance was uplifted by a visually striking stage setup and an animated presence, especially from singer Aaron Bruno and drummer Isaac Carpenter—moreso the latter than the former, with Carpenter often becoming the focal point on stage. An invisible dividing line was drawn in the crowd, with the younger faction fully engaged, while a majority of the over-30 crowd (myself included) figuratively scratching their head during their set.

After a brief respite, the arena filled out once again, as DJ Lord showed off his scratch wizardry and prepped the crowd with a remix of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The lights went down, an air-raid siren sounded, and the band took the stage opening with the befitting Public Enemy track “Prophets of Rage.” The supergroup wasted no time in setting the crowd ablaze with Rage tracks “Guerilla Radio” and “Bombtrack,” with the entire arena on its feet and the pit melding into a flurry of chaos. MCs B-Real and Chuck D were a formidable duo, acting as each other’s hype man as they switched back and forth on vocal duties. The three-fourths of Rage, boldly led by guitarist Tom Morello, were spot-on and as tight a unit as they were 20 years ago.

The real joy of the show was the brilliant treatment of some of the songs by all three groups represented. The set was peppered with amplified versions of P.E. and Cypress Hill tracks, including “Shut ‘Em Down” and “Rock Superstar,” while others turned into perfect mashups, breathing new life into songs like P.E.’s “She Watch Channel Zero,” where the rap was the same but the music was Audioslave’s “Cochise.” The crowd went wild as the band started playing the Beastie Boys classic “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn,” only to be caught by surprise as Chuck rapped the verses of “Fight the Power” along to the music.

A third of the way into the set, the members of Rage exited the stage as B-Real asked the crowd if “anyone is into hip-hop.” After the expected cheers, he and Chuck came out on a walkway into the crowd, kicking off a scorching medley of Cypress and P.E. hits, alternating between “Hand on the Pump” and “Bring the Noise.”

The band rejoined and tore into more Rage anthems like “Know Your Enemy,” as Morello flipped his guitar up to reveal his political stance on the election in bold letters on the back of his guitar, “NOBODY FOR PRESIDENT.” While Morello spoke of politics, injustice, and taking action between songs, one remarkable word missing from the entire night was “Trump.” With the personalities onstage, the Prophets’ set could have easily devolved into an anti-Trump rally. Neither candidate’s names were even mentioned once, instead letting the powerful message of the songs convey their stance on the state of things in America.

That’s notwithstanding one glaring jab at Trump, as later in the set the backdrop fell to the ground, revealing a second backdrop with the altered Trump slogan, “Make America Rage Again,” which was met with resounding approval from the crowd. Appropriately closing out the set with the classic “Killing in the Name,” all it took was the unmistakable opening chord of the song to add an extra shot of adrenaline to the crowd, and the arena was in a frenzy by the time Chuck and B-Real led the chants of “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me,” bringing their set to a monumental close.

The concept of Prophets of Rage has been met with its share of detractors citing the absence of de la Rocha as a reason to dismiss the project as a rehash. It was clearly evident over the course of the evening that this notion was as misguided as those who thought Kennedy was a crackpot for saying we would go to the moon. The timing was perfect, the planets aligned, and we have been given something special at a time when it is needed most. It was perhaps said best in the lyrics to “Guerilla Radio,” “What better place than here/what better time than now?

AWOLNATION

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