July 30, 2011
LA Coliseum at Exposition Park
LA Rising promised to be one of the biggest productions in Los Angeles' storied history of concert-going, but whether it achieved that status was due more to the music than to Goldenvoice's production prowess.
After toiling for a good hour, driving at a bumper-to-bumper pace around the perimeter of Exposition Park and the LA Coliseum (finding myself stuck in one place on South Figueroa going toward MLK for another hour and change), I finally got parking after sweet-talking an attendant at an adjacent museum lot.
A USC student told me the Coliseum itself had not been this active since Réal Madrid came to town, which accounts for the parking clusterfuck. Getting into the concert venue was considerably more effortless than parking my car.
Inside, one could have easily mistaken the crowd for that at a big sporting event. Late afternoon, people were merely pre-gaming for the big promise of the night, Rage Against the Machine.
My pre-gaming m.o. involved the Re-Education Camp, which took 30 minutes to find on site. The collection of advocacy groups, Los Angeles unions and organizations, and NGOs all set up to win over some participants seemed more like an afterthought to remind audiences that Rage, Rise Against and Ms. Hill represent "something," rather than an effective campaign to re-ignite their fan bases' social and political consciousnesses.
There was no doubt these activists were extremely passionate about their respective causes, yet after seeing how few concert-goers came and left without engagement, it seemed a measly effort.
Navigating the Coliseum was a continuous mess. The day before, a Facebook post on LA Rising's fanpage gave concert-goers something of a 24-hour notice that general admissions would be partitioned into three zones. The earlier you got there, the closer you'd be to the stage. Those who did not get this memo became increasingly outraged as the beer began to flow with greater ease in Zone 2 and 3.
In fact, I had to survive something of a refugee camp to get to Zone 1. Rampant crowd-surfing and random literal pick-ups and surfing of lightweight, concert-going victims made the general-admissions area a spectacle.
One zone entrance was to the right and another to the left, all of which I had to figure out on my own. I was often stuck in the body of the crowd, with people upset and toiling as I did in my car earlier, fighting pointlessly to the front, pushing, shoving and attempting to start fights with security.
One guy even said he would secure my safety if I could get him into Zone 1, to which I kept saying, "No, man, no thanks," but I failed miserably in fighting off the guy's "I'll do anything" mentality. It was exciting and scary, but a somewhat- fun, war-like rollercoaster. How appropriate?
Within the confines and safety of Zone 1, I was free to soak up music from the lineup. Ms. Hill gave soulful renditions of songs spanning multiple periods of her career. Playful orchestration through the use of a full band and her traditional three-girl backup, who were all very much in touch with Hill's spirit, gave noticeably voluminous body to the rapping and singing of the soloist.
Unfortunately, the sound mixing and large sound production required to fill the LA Coliseum made Hill strain her voice more often than not. Her struggling vocals left me wanting more. "Ready or Not" was a delightful, nostalgic teaser, brought to life with a maturity that reminded me of how influential she has been to the hip-hop community.
"Doo Whop (That Thing)" began uncomfortably fast. She tried to steady the tempo with her lyrical rapping, but the drums came and left unsteadily. Toward the middle, she gave up trying to contain it and went with the rushed "get out of here" tempo.
Rise Against presented us with a business-as-usual performance. The band's first few songs were upbeat--powerful and balanced despite widespread distortion. Tim McIlrath's vocals were spot-on. Before the performance of "Hero," the band gave a poignant message about the future of our war-driven lives. The political undertones of their performance and the spoken interludes added a level of intimacy between the crowd and the band. It brought an emotional gravity to their message that seemed to be lacking in the music they played.
As a big Rise Against fan, I felt like they weren't even trying. It was only toward the end, when the band went into the guitar breakdown of "Savior," that I felt the band inject any feeling into their set. Afterward, I felt like I just finished listening to their mp3s in a standing position.
In contrast, Muse's set was an overwhelmingly powerful, sensoral experience. (Emphasis on overwhelming.) Aside from the many who came just to see them, the band won over dozens of hardcore Rage fans.
Watching their production was akin to watching fireworks up close and singing, "boom boom boom" as the stage visually morphed with the music. Their set felt like a baptism of sorts. Sporting a Captain America shirt, lead singer Matthew Bellamy and his British band mates were backdropped by hexagonal screens that showed pixelated and digitized videos of the band. Laser lights brought a club ambience to the set, without the overwhelming smell of Axe body spray everywhere or the cheesiness of fist-pumping music.
Highlights of their orgasmic performance included mimicking sounds and compositional styles from composers such as Beethoven, Lizst, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. The song "Resistance" features a chord-change progression that is unique to Beethoven's Symphony No. 7's Allegretto movement. "Undisclosed Desires" was complemented by a spectacular laser-light show that bordered on artistic genius. Some parts of their set reminded me of Blur, Queen, Radiohead, even U2, but direct quotations of Gershwin and of the piano techniques found in Rachmaninoff's music blew my mind and convinced me that this band were beyond such musical associations.
In all, Muse gave the LA Rising crowd a significant display of their talents in performing music that was both stimulating to the senses and intellectually profound. At the end of their set, giant balloon eye-balls filled with confetti were let loose--a bit gimmicky, sure.
As the night wound down, the temperature began to drop. We all waited eagerly for Rage. Their takeover of the stage was swift, but the first song was marred by sound problems. The volume dropped significantly twice, drawing boos from the general-admission crowd.
They pushed on, as people who came to see this relic of rock music perform exclusively for LA Rising got riled up. Song by song, the crowd got more spirited, and whirlpools of human bodies began to form and mosh freely to the music. Part of Zone 2 was even set on fire.
It was clear that Rage Against the Machine was ready for the crowd; despite the sound problems early on, their mix of instrumental mastery and intense lyricism did more than cause the crowd to time-travel back to the '90s; it inspired all of us to continue to look for that energy and emotional commitment in music, which they steadfastly held onto.
Without exception, the energy level of their whole set was ridiculously high. It was a large collection of hits from all their past albums, sprinkled with lesser-known songs. Knowledgeable fans took those moments to show who they were.
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Still, there was the rawness for their lyrics, the elements of funk in their music, and the sick guitar solos and techniques on display that included in-and-out tuning and intricate patterning of guitar distortions. It was clear the band were inspired by the crowd, and the crowd was inspired by the band. It was also clear the night no doubt was ending on a good note, and Rage struck it with resounding brilliance.
Critic's Bias: KROQ kid since the mid-'90s.
The Crowd: Pro-Rage and anti-po-po; emo-loving fans.
Overheard: A die-hard Rage fan found Muse's set to be "shockingly good." Another said it was "fucking dope." I was just as impressed.