Prophets of Rage: Riverbend Music Center, Cincinnati, OH – October 5, 2016
“Cincinnati, are you awake?” asked rapper B-Real early in the performance of the Prophets of Rage on Wednesday, a theme he would revisit throughout the night. It felt like a warm late summer night in spite of the fall date on the calendar, but the election season politics was red hot. A spirit of raw indignation and frustration with the status quo are what inspired this rock/hip hop supergroup to come together and head out on tour. Featuring the Cyrpess Hill vocalist plus two from Public Enemy, rapper Chuck D and DJ Lord, and the three instrumentalists from Rage Against the Machine (also: Audioslave), guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk, these Prophets of Rage were on a mission to “wake up” Americans to their potential role in this challenging time.
Throughout the night, this masterful combo worked their way a fair number of classics from the Public Enemy, Cypress Hill and RATM’s catalogs, with special attention to Rage’s self-titled 1992 debut, playing seven of the ten tracks, albeit combining “Township Rebellion” and “Freedom” into one track. Interesting, however, is the omission of “Wake Up,” as it plays directly to the strength of their purpose.
The set opened with some dee-jay heroics from DJ Lord, who touched on all the obvious hip-hop classics, but also mingled in sections from classic rock – he opened with Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” to get everyone on their feet, the Run DMC take on Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” and even included a nod to Metallica – to alt-rock favorites by Nirvana and Blur.
But soon enough, the band hit the stage for the Public Enemy track “Prophets of Rage,” the song that gave them their name, with MCs Chuck D and B-Real trading vocal duties on the verses, before declaring that they were on tour to “make America Rage again” and “we’re f-ing enraged.”
They followed that with “Guerrilla Radio” and “Bombtrack” from the Rage catalog, before guitar hero/genius Morello tacked the instrumental intro to Audioslave’s “Cochise” onto the front end of Public Enemy’s “She Watch Channel Zero,” which B-Real asserted was a lot like watching the Fox News channel. Next came the Rage song, “People of the Sun,” and then PE’s “Miuzi Weighs a Ton,” were Morello stepped out with a bit more or a solo, stunning in its technical and emotional intensity.
I’ll confess one of the main attractions to RATM’s music for this listener is Tom Morello’s unusual guitar skills, which he demonstrated throughout the night, whether he was making his instrument sound like a variety of police/fire sirens, a deejay scratching a vinyl album, plucking the strings way up on the headstock of his guitar, or exhibiting the kind of traditional guitar heroics that folk often suggest from artists named Van Halen, Vai, and Satriani.
Set lists from previous nights on the tour indicate this was the point in the night where they delivered Rage’s version of Cypress Hill’s controversial hit, “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” but on this night they replaced it with “Township Rebellion,” with it’s shout along rant, “Fight the war, F… the norm.” This one segued into “Freedom,” and was followed by another Rage classic, “Take the Power Back,” with Chuck D taking the lead vocal. It’s worth pointing out that the two MCs did a great job covering the original vocals original delivered by RATM’s Zach de la Rocha (which is a great name, in and of itself, for a rocker). The booming Chuck D often supported with B-Real’s higher range made the material work, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to missing the piss & vinegar and passion of de la Rocha’s voice which cut through the strum and drang of the instrumentalist’s wall of sound with unique clarity and purpose.
Next came the Cypress Hill hit, “(Rock) Superstar,” followed by Rage’s “Testify,” a big, bold rocker where Morello took an entire solo loop by taking the cord out of his guitar and bouncing it against the palm of his hand, that it actually sounded like musical notes is just one more mystery in Morello’s creative approach to his instrument of choice. Who thinks of this stuff?
Now, I love the live band approach to hip hop vocals that defines RATM and others like The Roots, but the roots of rap have always been “two turntables and a microphone.” So, at this point in the show, the band left the stage to DJ Lord and his two MC’s as they worked through a medley of Public Enemy and Cypress Hill hits, much to the audiences delight as B-Real and Chuck D donned red Trumpian “Make America Rage Again” baseball caps and went down to the pit and interacted with fans as they churned out memorable numbers – “Hand on the Pump,” “Can’t Truss It,” “Insane in the Membrane,” “Bring the Noise,” “Ain’t Goin’ Out” and “Terrordome,” in quick succession.
The ended the hip hop jams with a celebrative cover of House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” which brought the band back who took a hard rock turn into “Sleep Now in the Fire,” followed by “Bullet in the Head,” which had the audience screaming along to the rebellious riff, “when they say jump, you say ‘how high?’” Bassist Commerford opened Public Enemy’s “Shut ‘Em Down” with a driving solo that established the track’s undeniable groove, that ended with DJ Lord and Morello in a sound battle, mimicking each other’s sounds in an exchange that was great fun.
As the concert was growing in intensity, approaching its climax, they offered up “Know Your Enemy,” and the Prophets of Rage one new released song, an indictment of the failure of the ‘American Dream’, “The Party’s Over.” Tom Morello came to the mic to describe the reason for this tour, declaring that “the world is not going to change itself.” He called upon the fans of the music, to become politically engaged, when voting and in all of life to “aim for the world you want, without compromise or apology.” He indicated that some of the proceeds of the concert were going to the Freestore Foodbank, serving the needy and hungry people of Cincinnati, inviting the “rich people” in the audience to give generously as we exited.
B-Real suggested that in a month if you walk into that voting booth and you still don’t know who to vote for, you can always write in “Prophets of Rage.” Morello went on to describe his vision of a better world where all children are fed and have access to a quality education, where racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia have no place, where young people aren’t sent of to unnecessary wars or killed by police in their own neighborhoods. Sounding a lot more like a politician running for office than I’m sure he intended, he repeated the call to aim for the world you want,” and “stand up against injustice,” as B-Real insisted that everyone present “get involved.”
The band then offered up an inventive mash-up of the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” that proved compelling and powerful. Noteworthy was another of Morello’s amazing solos, exhibiting superior guitar prowess, imitating inventive players like Hendrix and Buddy Guy by picking the strings with his teeth.
They ended the night with two of the most recognizable RATM tracks, first the radio hit “Bulls on Parade,” and one that could never air on the radio, dealing graphically with the emotions around police abuse and violence, “Killing in the Name,” introduced by B-Real as “dangerous times call for dangerous songs.” The audience responded to the song’s fury, erupting with the intense chorus of “F- you, I won’t do what you tell me!”
As the 6 musicians took their final bows to the fans cheers, Morello said, “B-Real has two last words for you,” to which the rapper added “legalize it!” All in all a politically charged, musically satisfying evening with a band whose music feels as relevant and timely in the current election season as it did two decades ago.
-Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb