Photos by Randall Vasquez
With apologies in advance, this isn’t your typical concert review. Then again, Rage Against the Machine playing shows for the first time in 11 years (and 22 and a half years since the last time they were in Toronto) is anything but your typical concert tour.
For anyone experiencing COVID brain fog, allow me to try to get you up to speed. Rage Against the Machine – the rebellious, ’90s quasi-metal colliding head-on with rap act – first announced a reunion beginning at the 2020 Coachella festival in late 2019, only for the pandemic to continually delay it to the point where even lifelong fans such as myself wondered if it was ever going to happen.
As the account for the FirstOntario Centre tweeted on July 19th, 2022, it may have taken nearly three years but finally Rage Against the Machine did return to Southern Ontario. Hamilton to begin, followed by Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena. This was after stops that have already become the stuff of legend at Ottawa Bluesfest and Festival d’été de Québec, where the beyond eager crowd was estimated to be in the 100,000s.
If you haven’t been keeping up on your rock nostalgia, things didn’t start all that smoothly for Rage; normally energetic singer Zack de la Rocha hurt his leg a couple of songs into only their second show back. The extent of his injury still isn’t completely known, but ever since then he’s had to sit for the entirety of the band’s blistering hour and a half set while Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk thrash around him.
Whatever is deterring de la Rocha from standing up for any length of time has not stopped de la Rocha from giving it his all. His situation has somehow made Rage’s performance that much more powerful, which I didn’t think was even possible. Yes the decidedly Gen-X crowd knew the words to pretty much every song and were more than willing to shout them back in unison, but it was like de la Rocha preached from a pulpit, not just delivering the choruses some of us have been committing to memory for the last 30 years. The themes and institutions the band have raged against haven’t changed; everything that came from de la Rocha’s lips was punctuated and as a result, their impact increased tenfold in my ears and eyes. The best example of this was probably during “Freedom” where a thin beaming spotlight focused with intensity on the immobilized de la Rocha whenever he incanted, “Your anger is a gift”. People stopped jostling with one another, if only for a second, so as to listen with rapt attention. Then it was back to the mayhem, of course!
With only three proper albums and a covers compilation to their name, the setlist Rage Against the Machine have been sticking to on the Public Service Announcement tour is about as close to a Greatest Hits collection as one can get. It’s short on deep cuts or surprises like an Audioslave tribute I was secretly hoping for; despite the familiarity with a well-worn catalogue, Rage managed to blow expectations clear out of the water. It also should be said that they could not have had a better opener than their comrades in hip hop Run the Jewels. The duo of Killer Mike and El-P got the evening off to an appropriately slamming start. It certainly helps that RTJ’s warm-up for Rage includes two pulsating tracks Zack de la Rocha himself is featured on, “Close Your Eyes (And Count to F—)” in addition to “JU$T” with its refrain of “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar”.
As opposed to Hamilton where attendees were exposed to the pro-Indigenous “Land Back” messaging coupled with a speech from de la Rocha about how we have to organize before our rights as we know them are taken away, Rage didn’t necessarily “shut up and sing” in Toronto but didn’t deviate much from their signature ferocious music. About the most T.O. got out of de la Rocha that weren’t his own lyrics was when he told the raucous mass of humanity before him to “Be respectful” to a young female crowd surfer during a particularly forceful mosh pit.
Who’s to say why he chose to stay silent – I’m sure the shirtless guy brandishing a “F— Trudeau” Canadian flag thought he would get his attention. Rage Against the Machine have had to deal with the meaning of who they are being misinterpreted and distorted for others’ gain since 1992; at the same time, no politics were going to stand in the way of 20,000 or so Torontonians blowing off some much-needed steam on July 21st.
Be sure to check out Scotiabank Arena to see all of the great artists that will be rolling through this year!
People of the Sun
Bulls on Parade
Bullet in the Head
Tire Me (Hamilton only)
Take the Power Back (after Testify in Toronto, followed by Wake Up)
Guerrilla Radio (followed by Down Rodeo in Toronto)
Vietnow (Hamilton only)
Know Your Enemy
Calm Like a Bomb
Sleep Now in the Fire
War Within a Breath
The Ghost of Tom Joad
Township Rebellion (partial)
Killing in the Name