Rage Against The Machine @ the Denver Coliseum during the Democratic National Convention
August 27, 2008
Text by Brian F. Johnson/Photos by Jeffrey V. Smith
These words do little to convey what this afternoon’s Rage Against the Machine concert at the Denver Coliseum was like. The show, an antiwar protest hosted by Tent State University, joined Rage Against the Machine, along with support acts The Flobots, The Coup and State Radio, to combine the forces of those acts with Iraq Veterans Against The War.
The early free concert, which started with State Radio at 11 a.m., looked like it would be complete mayhem from the outset, as more than 9,000 people crowded outside the Coliseum in hopes of snatching up one of the coveted free wrist bands. But what looked like madness on the outside turned out to be a well organized event on the inside — for the most part.
The morning and early afternoon was peppered with speeches by members of Iraq Veterans Against The War, who spent the time urging the crowd to join them on a march to the Pepsi Center, the site of the Democratic National Convention, following the show.
Former Boulderite Jello Biafra, the former leader of the seminal punk band The Dead Kennedys, gave several speeches throughout the day, and in typical Jello form launched into an irreverent tirade that spared few folks. He attacked everyone from former presidential candidate John Kerry to his former band mates who he said “might as well be Republicans” by now. Biafra said that at 50 years old, he’s old enough to have vivid memories of the fight to stop the Vietnam war, and said that today is no different. “We stopped that war. We’ve done it once. We can do it again,” he shouted to the crowd.
The speeches were all very careful to explain that the protest march was meant to be non-violent and they urged anyone with other plans, or with drugs and alcohol in their system to not participate. It was a smart job of covering their asses.
But what about the God damn show?
The Coliseum has never been, and never will be, a great place for a concert as the acoustics of the old dilapidated building have the sonic properties of an underwater warehouse.
The crowd found itself struggling through the early sets by State Radio, The Coup and Flobots. But when Rage Against the Machine took to the stage most of those sound issues faded away as the P.A. was cranked to its limit, drowning out any bad reverb problems from the building.
From the outset, Rage held the crowd right in the palm of their hand, and while the entire band helped hold that grasp lead singer Zach de la Rocha and lead guitarist Tom Morello get most of the credit.
de la Rocha’s punching vocals are accentuated by his fight-like stance and throughout the set he seemed as if he was fending off a cadre of enemies, throwing punches and lyrics with brutal delivery that always hit their target.
All the while Morello commanded his guitar making the fret board his bitch while he zipped up and down the neck. Morello is known for using feedback effects that sound like a scratching turntable, particularly on the band’s most well-known song “Bulls on Parade,” and throughout the set he jumped around like a lightning strike victim without missing a note.
But the real magic of the afternoon was the over-the-top crowd who bounced and fist-pumped throughout the entire show. The floor of the Coliseum, at times seemed like a 4,000 person mosh-pit that seldom calmed. Crowd surfers were being peeled off the front row at the rate of five to 10 people per minute. Surprisingly the security staff set to “catch” the surfers were very kind to them, even smiling and laughing with the fans as they touched down on the ground and were ushered to the wings.
Three songs in, Rage was joined by Wayne Kramer of the MC5, the protopunk band, who in 1968 played at the infamous Democratic National Convention in Chicago before the convention turned chaotic. Kramer, dressed in a white suit, playing a Stars and Stripes guitar, said that he recalls that time when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley made it illegal to gather in protest, but urged the crowd at the Coliseum today to stand up against the system. It was not surprising then to have Kramer and Rage launch into an incendiary version of “Kick Out The Jams” which featured Kramer and de la Rocha sharing and trading vocals throughout the song.
As the set drew to a close, the temperature in the Coliseum was approaching the unbearable mark. The band launched into their last song before the encore “Bullet in Your Head,” and while Morello rocked a solo with precision a stream of sweat poured off his chin with the pressure of a fire hose.
Rage capped the show with a blistering version of “Killing In the Name.” The song climaxes with de la Rocha repeating “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” over and over, before the band launches into a full-on sonic assault. As the crowd fist pumped along with de la Rocha, the tension grew and grew and when the band finally hit those closing notes the floor surged with a tidal wave of people that seemed as if it would spill over the walls of the coliseum floor.
The band announced it would join the protest march to the Pepsi Center and quickly filed off the stage. As the crowd poured into the street the marchers gathered at the front of the stadium with what seemed like hundreds of police in riot gear, stationed there to direct the crowd. As I bee-lined toward my car I was harshly told not to cross the street by the ominous looking police. The crowd was still peaceful, but the cops looked as if they were looking for an excuse to use their riot gear. It seemed as if things could get ugly. I made it to the car long before I had the chance to see if actually would go that way, and happily sped away as the march started. The music of the afternoon was brutal enough — a sonic billy-club-like assault on the ear drums. I didn’t need one of those to the back of my head.
Forget what happened with the march, forget whatever else happens with the Democratic National Convention, this show alone was the historic moment that Denver and the Democrats have been promising since they announced the convention would happen here.
More photos below by Jeffrey V. Smith/Wide Awake Design and Publicity