Screw with the familiar, buck the norm and challenge the sacred. Such was the M.O. of Prophets of Rage, the supergroup formed by Public Enemy's Lord and Chuck D, Cypress Hill's B-Real and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk. They're hitting up more than 35 cities this summer to wake you up and have a little fun tinkering with their trio of classic catalogues. Last month, the rap-rock Voltron played Cleveland at the same time as the Republican National Convention, and their run will stretch into October, ending two weeks before an election day they're evidently dreading.
Hendrix's axe bled into the DJ's 18-minute pump-up set that mashed Ol' Dirty Bastard and A Tribe Called Quest, Run-D.M.C. and Metallica. A full house skewing overwhelmingly white, male, 35-plus and tattooed was on its feet when Lord beat-juggled the bejesus out of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." We didn't know it, but the selection served as foreshadowing.
Against a black background decorated solely by the band's giant logo — a raised fist against a red star — the band took the stage and ripped into Rage's "Guerrilla Radio." Turn that shit up, indeed. B-Real, whose nasal timbre more closely resembled the absent Zack de la Rocha's, handled most of the lead vocals for the Rage tunes. He was decked out in sunglasses, wore a red towel over his bald head and rocked a red Public Enemy tee. Chuck D sported a glow-in-the-dark Cypress Hill concert T-shirt — blurred roles and solidarity.
For nearly two hours, the sextet — in Morello's words, "an elite task force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election year bullshit" — oscillated between highlights from all three group's greatest songs, dropping in original tunes "The Party's Over" and "Prophets of Rage" (an updated PE classic) along the way. The sonics and vocals were airtight, the energy impressive for a bunch of tour veterans supposedly past their prime. Chuck D was constantly tossing his mic in the air like a flaming sword, or swinging it like a baseball bat.
The band dug into a groove for a wonderfully downtempo take on Public Enemy's "Miuzi Weighs a Ton." The song is 29 years old yet, last night (August 24), felt as fresh as baby cheeks. A hip-hop mini set saw Rage leave the stage as Chuck and B-Real walked into the crowd and traded bars on "Hand on the Pump," "Can't Truss It" (p.s., B-Real makes a good Flavor Flav substitute), "Insane in the Brain," "Bring the Noise" and "Ain't Goin' Out Like That." Back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back jacks.
Morello, who's shared many a stage with Bruce Springsteen, invited singer Aaron Bruno from opener AWOLNATION onstage to help perform a cover of "The Ghost of Tom Joad," by "the only Boss worth listening to!" (It was unclear if the guitarist was throwing shade at Rick Ross or the guy who assigns you TPS reports.)
The barrage of "rebellious-ass rockin' music" (B-Real's phrase) approached its climax with an inspired version of "Shut 'Em Down." Chuck hollered, "Donald Trump, Hillary... what the fuck is going on? Stay as smart as you are, Canada." The words "Arm the Homeless" are scrawled on Morello's metallic-blue guitar. When he flips it over, a card pasted to his weapon reads, "Nobody for President."
As the band slammed through Beastie Boys' "No Sleep Till Brooklyn," Chuck rapped "Fight the Power," a mash-up of the highest order. It felt like the finale.
And then Dave Grohl showed up. You couldn't hear yourself think as the surprise guest helped demolish a frenzied cover of MC5's "Kick out the Jams." As the music faded, B-Real returned from the mosh pit with a pair of black panties. He drove the show home with "Killing in the Name."
The album anniversary shtick is getting played out. Prophets of Rage may not prevent Trump or Clinton from seizing power, but they have furiously and smartly reimagined a way for legacy acts to tour their back catalogues and make summers fun again.