Prophets of Rage could have served as a temporary lark to make up for ’90s rap-rockers Rage Against the Machine’s failure to get Zack de la Rocha to commit to a reunion beyond sporadic festivals (none close to Boston). The move to replace the Rage frontman with not one but two of the same era’s most galvanizing rappers in Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Cypress Hill’s B-Real seemed too good to last.
But Prophets of Rage’s intimate detonation at the Paradise Rock Club on Thursday and pending Sept. 15 release of its eponymous full-length debut prove that this band’s only starting to steamroll. The presidential election may be over, but as red hats and bandanas at the merchandise table declared, it’s time to “Make America Rage Again.” When security guards donned those bandanas over their mouths bandit-style at the club, it certainly left an ominous impression.
The group’s 90-minute Paradise set rekindled modern protest as well as rap-rock nostalgia in pointed terms. While this outfit wasn’t exactly the second coming of Rage Against the Machine, it wielded the same rhythm section of drummer Brad Wilk, bassist Tim Commerford and guitarist Tom Morello and plumbed that band’s same catalog and punch. And it didn’t take long before fans packed close to the stage surged into a frothy bounce to RATM’s “Testify” (where sonic alchemist Morello soloed simply by tapping the live tip of his guitar cord) and “Take the Power Back,” where Chuck D and B-Real led fans in its mantra of “No more lies” before a whiplash finish. And this isn’t the first time the three Rage members drafted a new vocalist. One of Thursday’s most moving moments came when they played “Like a Stone” in tribute to their fallen former Audioslave comrade Chris Cornell and fans sang both verves and louder choruses.
For Prophets, the Rage instrumentalists couldn’t have secured a more potent, political voice of authority to front the band than Chuck D, whose hip-hop agitators Public Enemy also forged sonic lava that influenced Morello’s turntable-mimicking guitar tricks. The role of Public Enemy’s DJ Lord, in turn, seemed largely redundant on Thursday until the Rage guys left mid-set, leaving him to spin a mashup of Cypress Hill and Public Enemy tracks behind the tag team of B-Real and Chuck D. Alas, the snippet setup left Chuck D to deliver the line “Welcome to the Terrordome” as a resigned fadeout rather than its sharp punctuation on 1990’s prescient Fear of a Black Planet. Then the rappers treated the crowd to House of Pain’s guilty pleasure “Jump Around.”
However, in Prophets of Rage, Chuck D seems content to play the deep-voiced counterpoint to B-Real, who took more of the lead role onstage, sporting a sheik-styled headdress as he tore into Rage Against the Machine classics with fully voiced verve beyond the nasal tone he often favored with Cypress Hill.
The band debuted a few songs from its upcoming album, which mines familiar territory for old Rage fans beyond the balance-toppling riffs and recast “Rally round the family” lyric in “Strength in Numbers.” There’s current topicality in “Living on the 110,” which champions the homeless (one of Morello’s guitars bore the words “Arm the homeless”) and “Hail to the Chief” stood out Thursday with its rousing chorus “All hail to the chief, who came in the name of a thief to seek peace.”
Yeah, there were no questions when it came to the band’s targets. Morello capped one Hendrix-ian solo by biting notes on his strings, revealing that the back of his guitar was plastered with a two-word sign that abruptly kissed off Trump. After the quaking “Sleep Now in the Fire,” the Harvard-educated guitarist also praised Boston fans for standing against neo-Nazis and white supremacists at the recent rally on the Common, noting “They’re not coming back any time soon.”
Prophets of Rage hopefully will return soon to a larger stage that better amplifies the group’s volume (the drums sounded a bit thin in the club mix), message and energy. A Rage show’s like a rally for the family – and yes, the bigger the better.