Dark clouds might be muttering threats overhead, but it’s a celebratory mood surrounding Rage Against The Machine’s Finsbury Park gig, a gauntlet of fairground rides greeting ticket-holders and t-shirts cheerily emblazoned with RATM 1, Cowell O reminding us why we’re here.
This, of course, is the band’s thank you for last December’s social media campaign to make Killing In The Name the UK’s Christmas Number 1 single, thwarting Simon Cowell’s The X-Factor stranglehold of the slot and enlivening a slow news week with a torrent of increasingly rabid headlines decrying the band and the moral degradation of the campaign’s supporters.
Six months on and it all seems a bit silly. All around, slogans refer to the event as a ‘victory celebration’, as though something rather more meaningful had been achieved than 500,000 of us pressing ‘proceed’ on an iTunes purchase, and whilst the assembled 40,000 stand jeering an animated caricature of Cowell, the man himself is receiving a BAFTA for services to television just a few miles away.
Still, this isn’t the time for cynicism: this is a free gig, after all, and – with Gallows, Roots Manuva and Gogol Bordello in support – a rather more impressive one than most expected.
As the stage lights raise on a crimson star, and air-raid sirens soundtrack the slow circle of an overhead police helicopter, anticipation peaks, and there’s a collective inward breath as the video screens blink into life. “We are Rage Against The Machine from Los Angeles!” yells Zach De La Rocha unnecessarily, the artillery flanger opening of Testify coursing through the speakers around him before the riff breaks and the paper cups start flying.
Bombtrack follows, its chorus of “Burn Burn, Yes You’re Gonna Burn” rendered darkly hilarious when chanted by tens of thousands of smiling people holding camera phones aloft.
The band themselves are note perfect, delivering a supremely polished performance that keeps the energy high and the mood buoyant, albeit one with few surprises: the setlist is crowd-pleasing throughout, eschewing the more experimental Battle For Los Angeles offerings in favour of the huge choruses and rebellious zeal of the band’s debut.
That’s no bad thing – these are all great songs – although it’s a touch frustrating to see one of the few genuinely ideological bands of the last 20 years using 16-year-old tracks as a call to arms to a cause only thinly defined. Whilst a statement of support for the Gaza flotilla raises a cheer, traffic to the smattering of stalls campaigning for various political causes is dwarfed by the numbers queuing to be flung around violently: dissent is limited to the faint hint of pot in the damp air, and to the response that greets the several hundred gatecrashers who manage to breach an emergency exit before security seal it. It’s something, granted, but the occasional cries of “Fuck the Police” from crowd members do little to temper notions that the band’s politicising is largely lost on their audience.
There’s no doubting Rage’s own conviction in their beliefs though, as they invite the orchestrators of the December campaign onstage to receive a large cheque for the homeless people’s charity Shelter. But when the band briefly vacate the stage to a montage of press clippings and the strains of Joe McElderry‘s The Climb, the tone turns to a smug self-satisfaction that jars unpleasantly with the anger and passion showcased beforehand, most notably with the stunning time shifts and frantic riffs of main set closer Freedom.
The band return, of course, for Killing In The Name, the crowd joined as one for the expletive-laden refrain as local authority officials gleefully read the decibel count for any breach of license. Perhaps this is all rebellion is now: yelling until our lungs ache and disturbing the sleep of local residents. Whatever: this was supposed to be a night of celebration, and it certainly achieved that. But what we really need is something that compels us into action, that moves us to respond. Is it wrong to expect a band nearly two decades old to do that? Perhaps, but no-one else seems willing to try.