For those who know me and even those who don’t who just happen to read this blog regularly, you’ll know an arena is just about the last place you can expect to find me seeing a show. So you can also imagine it would take a very special band to get me into that environment in the first place. Indeed, it did take a special band to make the stars align in such a way, but I knew that making it to see Rage Against the Machine was very important and something I was going to have to put aside my aversion to arena shows to make happen.
To be clear though, I almost didn’t go because despite loving RATM, I just absolutely loathe arena shows and have a mental wall that it’s just not a place I go to see music. Some may think I’m crazy, and maybe I am, but I consider it more that I’ve been spoiled for years in that I’ve been able to see so many bands I care so deeply about up close and personal in small venues so I don’t even want to bother when it’s in a large space. And for years I didn’t, sticking closely to DIY spaces and dive bars to get my musical fix. I have let go of that a lot in more recent years but the transition to larger spaces has been a trip for me to say the least; I’m still getting used to working in 1500plus cap venues, and shooting shows from photo pits, never mind an arena.
But my friend and co-photographer on this piece, Ellen Qbertplaya, talked some sense into me and convinced me to get over myself and get to the show. She was of course 100% right and I got a last minute ticket to the final show of their five day MSG run. And what a show to make an exception to my “I hate/don’t go to huge venues” rule for. I have listened to and loved RATM ever since first borrowing the CD and making a tape of the first album from a classmate in 1995, but they just never seemed like a band I’d ever get to see. First I was too young and then later when I was old enough, they were too broken up (and there was that whole arena disinclination thing I wasn’t yet over when they played previous reunions). Now all these years later, to be able to finally hear so many songs from their body of work performed live, it was truly something I didn’t know how badly I needed, hitting a place deep inside of me on an almost spiritual level.
I have always loved their 1992 self titled debut the most, and the tour being pushed back by the pandemic almost made it an anniversary tour of sorts. I listen to that album front to back all the time, finding inspiration in the anger, yet a sadness that so many of the issues addressed on it are not any better 30 years later and in some ways are worse. Birthed into a world just recovering from the 1992 LA Riots in response to the disgusting acquittal of the cops who savagely beat Rodney King, the band and that record in particular were so vital at the time, saying things that no one in the mainstream had the guts to say and at the volume that they said it. Unfortunately among other myriad issues, police brutality has only seemed to have gotten more brazen and out of control in the years since and as much as I don’t want to need Rage in 2022, we do still so badly need their voice now more than ever.
Rage Against the Machine (photo by Ellen Qbertplaya)
And as for the Rage of 2022, despite being three decades older and Zack de la Rocha’s injury earlier on the tour (revealed to be a torn achilles by friend of the band Glen E. Friedman), they were as incendiary and explosive on stage as ever. Even sitting down de la Rocha’s energy and power as a performer radiated off of the stage. During “Freedom” towards the end of the set he was so into it that he appeared to try to jump up before quickly sitting back down again. I can imagine for a performer of his caliber and intensity it must have been hard not to move all around the stage. Guitarist Tom Morello is one of the most innovative players of his generation and even in a room that big with 20,000 other people there, it was absolutely breathtaking to watch him play; I just marveled at being able to see him do things that no one else does or can. The funk fueled, air tight rhythm section of drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford were of course the bedrock holding up the fury of de la Rocha’s vocals and the fire of Morello’s guitar.
I stayed away from looking at setlists before I went but afterwards took a peek and they seem to have been structured fairly similarly across the five night run though some nights did have a few less songs. They played songs from across their three albums—1992’s self-titled, 1996’s Evil Empire and 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles—making a good mix from across the catalog, though playing the most overall from the self titled record. “Bombtrack” fittingly kicked off the night and I knew I was going to get to hear the major hits from each album like “Bulls On Parade,” “Guerrilla Radio,” “Testify” and “Killing In the Name,” (which closed the show because what other song could?), and those are what got the most audience reaction. But I was very pleased to get to hear some of the album tracks too like “Down Rodeo,” and one of my all time favorites “Wake Up,” which they used to pay tribute to the many lives stolen by police violence, specifically naming Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo, Fred Hampton, and concluding with “this song goes out to everyone who isn’t named, to those who haven’t been seen, murdered unarmed at the hands of the police in some corner of the world, when the cameras were off and we couldn’t see. This song is for them.”
While they did not play their Minor Threat cover from their 2000 covers album, Renegades (which of course I hoped for but didn’t actually expect them to do), they did hit their iconic Bruce Springsteen cover, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” and a cover of “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” by opening act, the hip hop group Run The Jewels, bringing the members on stage to perform with them. They really played just about everything I wanted to hear otherwise except perhaps “Revolver,” which appears to have been left off the tour sets other than as a partial intro, or “Fist Full of Steel” (which they did play on an earlier night) or the full run of “Township Rebellion,” which they instead used a shortened version of as a link track between “Freedom” and “Killing In The Name.”
“Close Your Eyes,” “Wake Up” on 8/14/22
I also loved the video screen, not only making it easier for a shorty like me to see, but the mix of live footage from the show as it happened and the politically charged images they used to emphasize the point of the songs really pushed things over the top visually. Always a band to stand by its principles and put its money where its mouth is, they also posted a graphic at the end of the night (and on their Instagram) stating “Charity tickets purchased by our fans for our five night Madison Square Garden residency raised $1,000,000. These funds will be distributed to the Immigrant Defense Project and by WhyHunger to Neighbors Together and The Campaign Against Hunger in New York City.” This follows several earlier donations on the tour totaling over 1.5 million dollars to various causes like abortion access funds, organizations fighting hunger, the Abolitionist Law Center and Detention Watch Network among others.
MSG exclusive poster
This five night run were the band’s last shows for a while as they have canceled their UK/European leg of the tour to allow de la Rocha time to heal from his injury and the next North American leg won’t commence until 2023 on the West Coast. And who knows if there will be more shows to come after the tour finally concludes as the band had not made any further announcements even before de la Rocha’s injury. Suffice it to say, I’m very glad I took the sage advice of a friend and did indeed get over myself because this was one of the best shows of my life even with it not being the ideal setting for me. (Hey, I know I’m never going to see Rage at a house show, but a middle-aged punk kid can dream!) The power of their music and their message transcended any and all obstacles— in my head or otherwise—and I am never going to forget this night.
Setlist: Bombtrack, People of the Sun, Bulls on Parade, Bullet in the Head, Testify, Take the Power Back, Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck) (Run The Jewels cover with RTJ), Wake Up, Guerrilla Radio, Down Rodeo, Vietnow, Know Your Enemy, Calm Like a Bomb, Sleep Now In The Fire, Born of a Broken Man, War Within a Breath, The Ghost of Tom Joad (Bruce Springsteen cover), Freedom, Township Rebellion (partial/used as link track), Killing In the Name
“Killing In the Name” 8/14/22
Full performance from 8/14/22 which featured a Run The Jewels cover/guest appearance
Full performance from 8/8/22 which featured a similar but slightly shorter setlist
RUN THE JEWELS
RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE