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10 Years Ago: Rage Against the Machine Reunite at Coachella

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When Rage Against the Machine headlined the inaugural Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in 1999, they did so alongside Tool, and shared the two-day bill with heavy hitters At the Drive-In and A Perfect Circle. Eight years later, on April 29, 2007, they once again topped the lineup of the fest. This time, Rage were all alone when it came to hard rock, a sharp contrast to Damien Rice, Björk, et al. They were also the band most people came to see on the third and final night.

Rage had called it a day in late 2000, with frontman Zack de la Rocha keeping off the radar for the most part while the instrumental core of guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk linked up with ex-Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell in the successful project Audioslave. As the years went on though, especially with unrest in the political climate, specifically the second term of U.S. President George W. Bush, many were looking for an aggressive activist voice in music.

Shortly after the mid-January 2007 announcement that Rage Against the Machine would headline Coachella, Cornell revealed his intentions to restart his solo career and leave Audioslave behind. The focus was then entirely on the former and, come the Sunday afternoon of the festival, there were powder-keg levels of pending explosiveness.

Gone was the happy-go-hippy vibe that had dominated the weekend at Coachella. There was a discernible air of tense, testosterone-fueled aggression. Whereas single-day tickets for the first two days had been available up until each respective gate time, day three had sold out instantly. Hardcore fans of Rage Against the Machine planted themselves right against the guardrail of the largest platform on the grounds, the Coachella Stage and sat somewhat patiently through Explosions in the Sky, the Roots and Willie Nelson. But their endurance in the 100-degree plus heat was put to the test when Crowded House took the stage.

The antipodean pop act was also celebrating a reunion, but that wasn’t the one many viewing their set wanted to see. Chants of “Rage! Rage! Rage!” rang out between each song, and when the group went into their biggest hit, “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” frontman Neil Finn was hit right in the face with a bottle. He took it in stride, even attempting to talk down the rowdy audience by saying, “They’re coming, they’re coming.”

At 10:40PM, they came. “Good evening. We are Rage Against the Machine from Los Angeles, California,” said de la Rocha without pause, prefacing the build-up which exploded when the group launched into “Testify,” the third single from their third and final LP – to date – The Battle of Los Angeles. Following Morello’s mounting, otherworldly airy swath of guitar histrionics, the Empire Polo Fields began to bounce like slowly rolling trampoline. Hundreds of yards back, the vibrations could be felt underfoot.

Ripping through a set of well-planned/maximum numbers like “Sleep Now in the Fire,” “Bombtrack” and “Bullet in the Head,” it was like Rage never left. Morello leapt about, Commerford belied his intensity by putting his arms behind his back when not delivering thumping bottom end in tandem with Wilk. And de la Rocha? Uncontainable, having grown out an Afro, wearing a simple outfit consisting of a dark salmon collared shirt and black cargo pants, the singer spat lyrics like a sermon directed at white collar criminals in or out of jail.

Although he said virtually nothing between songs, de la Rocha finally spoke out in the middle of “Wake Up,” the set closer, saying, “This current administration…should be hung and tried and shot, as any war criminal should be.”

A faction of the audience then attempted to light a fire in the middle of the field, but it was quickly stomped out as cooler heads prevailed. The obligatory encore kicked off with “Freedom,” but took a surprising turn when, immediately after it ended, Morello dove into the coda of “Township Rebellion,” leading to yet another blast of energy coursing through the grounds, continuing through the expected sure shot salvo of “Killing in the Name.”

The night was over for all intents and purposes after the final lines of “F— you I won’t do what you tell me,” rang out, but that didn’t stop amped up revelers from destroying art installations on the Coachella compound, turning what was originally a laid-back weekend into a post-frat party debacle. It was an even balance though, the return of one of the most important hard rock bands of an era coupled with a misguided youth’s appropriation of their message.

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