IRVINE — Rage Against the Machine is a band with an agenda.
Its goal? To stun the placid, suburban upper-middle class, ignite the underclass and infuse a razor-sharp political message into its volatile cocktail of metal, funk, punk and hip-hop.
On Thursday, playing a sold-out show at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, the group revealed that it has touched a nerve with many rock fans who crave a combination of head-banging music and radical politics.
In its six-year career, the Los Angeles group has sold more than 7 million albums. And, as this show made clear, its conscience-prodding messages and fast, furious music have infused danger and daring into the increasingly predictable world of rock.
The sense of daring wasn't immediately obvious as the group trudged casually onstage without a trace of ceremony. Then Rage drove into "People of the Sun," an anthem from the group's 1996 album, "Evil Empire," and from that point it was clear that the group was going to deliver its usual bombshell-like aggression.
The crowd responded by waving upside-down American flags inscribed with the word "failure," and the punk-rock "A" for anarchy. Rage's message clearly is reaching the middle class.
Playing against a backdrop of tongue-in-cheek placards that looked like school medical emergency manuals--with Barbara Kruger-like illustrations painted with the such lines as "Who prays loudest?" and "Who follows orders?"--lead singer-rapper and ex-Irvine resident Zack De La Rocha quickly came alive with hyperkinetic energy. Jumping, spitting out lyrics, looking like a live wire, the 27-year-old singer proved that, next to Prodigy's Keith Flint, he is one of rock's most electrifying front men.
The surprise of the night was guitarist Tom Morello, who usually plays rather quietly and dutifully while De La Rocha steals the spotlight. Morello, whose unconventional, buzzsaw-like guitar playing simulates rap-style scratching, jumped around the stage, becoming a far more magnetic presence with this show.
The success of Rage's set was not a sure thing. This tour has seen its share of troubles. De La Rocha sprained his ankle during a New York performance. The tour began as a headline-grabbing, potentially potent bill with the Wu-Tang Clan, but the rap act dropped out halfway through. The Clan was replaced by the calmer, jazzier Philadelphia rap outfit the Roots, which delivered a smooth opening set of hip-hop fusion that was low-key despite a painfully loud sound mix.
Pummeling through material from "Evil Empire,' which hit No. 1 in Billboard and from its debut album, Rage peaked with the immediate urgency of such older songs as "Bullet in the Head" and "Fistful of Steel" and one newer track, "Bulls on Parade." De La Rocha's raps focused on urging action and attacking apathy--and also threatening the moneyed establishment.
This show underscored how successful Rage has been in capturing the kind of powerful, strongly ideological force that Public Enemy brought to rap. With its radical leftist views and rabble-rousing music, the group seems closer aligned with Chuck D than, say, the Offspring, but its recipe is one that any fan of boundary-breaking rock can love.