Monday, July 30, 2007

Rock The Bells: 2007.07.28 Randall's Island NYC Review

Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of being in attendance for the all day hiphop festival called Rock The Bells, which has an amazing lineup including EPMD, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Public Enemy, The Roots, Cypress Hill, Wu-Tang Clan, and a reunited Rage Against The Machine in their 2nd show back together after a 7 year hiatus.

This was probably the single greatest full day of live music I have ever experienced. The day began with taking a ferry up the East River to get to the island, and catching the tail end of EPMD. The crowd was slowly trickling in, and it was outright hot outside with the sun blaring down on the crowd. It became apparent that though this was a hiphop show, the crowd was predominantly white skater/stoner males, clearly most eager for the Rage performance. Despite that, there was good energy for the other acts throughout.

Act-by-act reviews:

Mos Def / Talib Kweli
Talib was the first to be introduced, and came running on stage and ran through solo hits such as “Too Late” and “Move Somethin’” from his 2000 album “Reflection Eternal”. Mos Def soon joined him on stage, and they blasted through some classic Black Star tracks, including a blistering “Definition”. At this point, Mos Def took over with some of his solo tracks, including “Boogie Man Song”, “Close Edge” and “Ms Fat Booty”. The two then closed their set playing a rocking version of Talib’s crowd-pleasing “Get By”. This set proved to be one of the highlights of the day – both Talib and Mos have a remarkable stage presence and seeing them play together again was something fans have been eager for for quite awhile.

Public Enemy
Next up were Public Enemy with Chuck D. and Flava Flav. Unlike Mos/Talib before, this was a completely forgettable set, lacking energy from both the band and the crowd. They played classics such as “Terrordome” and “Black Steel”, all of which seemed to be wandering aimlessly. Flava Flav took over the latter part of the set, waxing poetic about his shows on VH1 (even suggesting that he was #1 on cable), bringing his children on stage for introductions, playing the drums for no obvious reason, yelling “Yeah, boiiiiii” over and over. It was as if Public Enemy demanded the crowd’s respect simply for what they did 20 years ago rather than answering the “what have you done for me lately” question. The crowd was ready for the next act.

The Roots
Another highlight. The Roots are known to be thrilling live, and they delivered once again. The set opened up with ?uestlove dropping a beat and Black Thought seemingly freestyle on top of it. What started with the crowd jumping to the beat ended with the crowd gazing at Black Thought in awe of his skills. The band had brought a brass section, including the standard trumpet, trombone, and saxophone but augmenting it with a sousaphone (not a tuba, folks). With a limited set time, they played a few of their songs and then ended the set with a jam on top of “Jungle Boogie” with Black Thought once again freestyling to the groove. The strength of this short performance makes me believe that seeing The Roots live in a full set is something not to be missed.

Cypress Hill
With a crowd of stoners ready for RATM, it should not be surprising that Cypress Hill was a popular choice, and though the crowd seemed to be having fun bouncing to tracks such as “Insane In The Brain”, “I Wanna Get High”, “How I Could Just Kill a Man”, “Hits From The Bong”, and closing with “(Rock) Superstar”, I couldn’t help but to ask why Cypress Hill had any business being here, with such little relevance to anything going on today. Their only purpose seemed to be to talk about smoking pot, including having an outright offensive inflatable Buddha with a marijuana leaf on the belly, and they played songs that were better served in 1993 when they originally came out. Was it fun? On a certain level, yes. Did it belong here? No.

Wu-Tang Clan
With the death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard (ODB) in 2004, the Wu-Tang Clan has been in and out of solo albums and group work. The importance of ODB seems clear as the other 8 members struggle to find the chemistry that made them so strong in the late 90s. Either way, the crowd was happy to see all 8 other members, including RZA, GZA, and MethodMan, on stage together working through classics, including “Triumph”. The sound mix was the biggest problem in this set, with the actual music being lost in the mix and the microphones for the MCs being too loud, especially that of Method Man. He repeatedly suggested to the crowd, “the energy you give to us, we give back”. Which is hard, when the crowd couldn’t hear anything but him. For Wu-Tang fans, there is little doubt that this set delivered; for the others, this was just another hour closer to hearing Rage Against The Machine.

Rage Against The Machine
Most of the crowd had been waiting for this set, most of which were waiting for 7 years (unless you saw them at Coachella). The set started with the band running on stage and Zach De La Rocha yelling “We are Rage Against The Machine from Los Angeles, California!”. From that point, starting with “Testify”, until the end of the set, the energy was absolutely boiling over and the wait was well worth it. Rage proved that they are just as relevant today as they were in 1994 when the first album came out. They were as tight together as ever, Zach and Tom pulling off their trademark stage behaviors: Zack running around and screaming like a reckless teenager and Tom dancing in place with his guitar. Brad Wilks and Tim Commerford held the band down on drums and bass, with only a brief hiccup during “Vietnow”.

They rocked songs such as “Bulls on Parade”, “Know Your Enemy”, “Bullet In The Head” (my favorite), and the rare “Tire Me”. During the main set closer, “Wake Up”, Zach finally spoke to the crowd, clarifying the band’s point of view on the post-Coachella fallout regarding Fox News reporting that RATM suggested that George Bush be assassinated – “What we said was that he should be tried for war crimes and hung and shot for that”. This was followed by the rousing ending of the song with Zach yelling “Wake Up!” repeatedly until he could no more.

The band returned and jumped into “Freedom”, with a slower tempo than normal during the versus to build even more tension for the ending sequence. By the time they got to the ending “Freedom? Yeah! Freedom? Yeah Right!” chant, the crowd was fully aware of the power of this band and the moment that they were a part of. Zach couldn’t quite capture the gut-wrenching “Yeah” screams as he once did, but it didn’t matter – the message was loud and clear. The band ended the evening on the song that started it all for them, “Killing In The Name”, which ended with the entire crowd of thousands jumping in unison yelling “F* you, I won’t do what you tell me!” The message Rock The Bells was hoping to deliver on this day was received. And I am still breathless hours later.

Full Setlist:
1. Testify
2. Bulls On Parade
3. People of the Sun
4. Know Your Enemy
5. Vietnow
6. Bullet in the Head
7. Rodeo
8. Tire Me
9. Guerilla Radio
10. Calm Like A Bomb
11. Sleep Now In The Fire
12. Wake Up

13. Freedom
14. Killing In The Name


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