Bluesfest was the place to be in Ottawa Friday night, as this city has waited years for the chance to be in the presence of legendary rock band Rage Against The Machine. It was a sold out show (30 000 people) and many arrived early to buy RATM merchandise and to stake out their spot standing in the hot sun for hours before any performer would take to the main stage.
The entire area in front of the stage was packed by the time American alt-rap/hip-hop duo Run The Jewels took to the stage. Those familiar with the scene would have known immediately who was taking the stage tonight by the large hands flashing the “pistol and fist” hand gesture the band is known for suspended from above the stage. The duo’s Dj, Trackstar the DJ, would spin centre-stage flanked by two large light boxes on either side.
Run The Jewels are two veteran rap artists, Brooklyn’s El-P and Atlanta’s Killer Mike and have become highly successful by merging the different sounds and styles from their regional hip hop upbringing while staying true to core tenets. The duo brought to the stage all the energy, fast back and forth political rhymes, and scratch solos the crowd expected and craved.
El-P had the crowd ease his guilt of missing his wife’s (comedian/musician Emily Panic) birthday by singing her “Happy Birthday” and they would tease the Ottawa crowd for having the “kindest softest mosh pit we’ve ever seen” (something that likely immediately changed) and left everyone with memories of their performances of ‘Ooh la la’, ‘Call Ticketron’ and ‘Nobody Speak’, a DJ Shadow song they helped write and are featured on.
The crowd knew this would be a night of bands with something to say, and Run The Jewels did not disappoint. They opened with the beginning of the U.S.A. for Africa song ‘We Are The World’ and then saying “I hate this song. We’re saving our lives. Just our lives” before jumping into their own song ‘Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)’. Later they would get loud cheers, particularly from female fans for establishing some community rules “If you’re not here with a girl and find yourself tempted to touch, keep your fucking hands to yourself!”
They dedicated ‘Walking In The Snow’ to “The people who have lost their lives at the hands of the people paid to to protect their lives” and before performing ‘Pulling The Pin’ they reminded the audience that “It’s the oldest story in time, race or otherwise, it’s the ones in power vs us, and there’s always more of us!”
It was clear they didn’t know what to expect from the Ottawa crowd and seemed genuinely grateful for the fans in attendance. They acknowledged one in particular, a ginger-haired fan with glasses who they noticed had rapped every word along with them. “If RTJ is one person, it’s him,” they said before performing their last song which saw Killer Mike jump down from the stage to rap with the crowd on their level. RTJ promised early in the set to do everything they could to make this a blockbuster night and they delivered on their part of that promise.
Of course, the band that was really going to make or break the night was the next band to grace the main stage and Rage Against The Machine exceeded expectations. The last two decades have seen the band disband and reunite a few times. This is their first reunion in 11 years and Ottawa was lucky to end up being just the fourth stop on their current Public Service Announcement Tour. They are reuniting now at a time when perhaps the world needs them the most and because of the long hiatus they are performing for both long-time hard-core fans, as well as a younger generation just discovering them for the first time.
Rage took to the stage among a sea of angry red light and flashed “Fear Is Your Only God” across the screens as they played a ‘Public Service Announcement’ from a tape and then moved directly into performing ‘Bombtrack’ and ‘People Of The Sun’. Although Zack de la Rocha injured his leg on the Chicago stop of the tour, he had it in a cast and needed to sit for much of the show (sometimes looking like he might be struggling with pent up energy or frustrated not to be jumping around); the band delivered all the hard rocking vocals, guitar/bass licks, and drum solos the crowd expected.
“How good is the sound!” one fan commented, and similar comments of appreciation could be heard throughout the performance. Of particular note was Brad Wilk’s extended drum solo on ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ and Tom Morello pulled out his double neck guitar for their performance of their Bruce Springsteen cover ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’.
The crowd also had a great deal of pent up energy to release and that energy was palpable throughout. Of course, those closest to the stage experienced the most intense moshing and crowd surfing, but there was jostling among fans and things flying through the air all over the packed festival grounds.
Everyone was singing along and rocking their bodies and nodding their heads with hands up to every song but the crowd was particularly enthusiastic to join the band in screaming the words to ‘Bullet In The Head’, ‘Testify’,and ‘Guerrilla Radio’.
One thing RATM is known for is their political statements and that has not changed. When performing ‘Bulls On Parade’ you could clearly see that Tom Morello had “arm the homeless” written on his guitar.
During the songs the screens showed red or black and white videos of the band and crowd but between songs was another story. The videos displayed at these times were clearly political statements but up to the audience to interpret. There were videos bringing to mind the issues of police brutality (a burning police van), the global migrant crisis (a helicopter flying over what appeared to be a migrant ship) and other issues of oppression peoples are facing worldwide.
Of course they spoke out about current events saying “A handful of fundamentalist christian fascists are trying to take control of this society. And I know you are very well aware of the fact that they just robbed millions of our sisters of their rights in the south. But I think you might also know, what I know that is how we defeat them is with solidarity. Our people are going to need you more than ever. We know what’s happening but if we stand together and fuck this nationalist bullshit, we can win, we can win!” earning one of the loudest cheers of the night.
They didn’t let Canada off the hook and before playing ‘Freedom’ flashed the following on the screens:
“An Indigenous person in Canada is over 10 times more likely to be shot and killed by a police officer than a white person is. In Canada, Indigenous women and girls are 16 times more likely to be murdered or to disappear than white women are. Settler-Colonialism Is Murder. LAND BACK” That last slide garnering a huge cheer from the crowd and pictures of those slides are now being shared widely on social media.
They would cap off the night with their mega-hit ‘Killing In The Name’ which the crowd would sing along the loudest all night with middle fingers raised. There was no encore and instead, the band played a tape of the Bobby McFerrin song ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’. It’s hard to hold on to angry thoughts when that is playing so hopefully, it helped everyone to leave the venue and get home in peace. The giant crowd seemed to universally agree that there is no doubt this was a night that will go down in Bluesfest history as the performance was everything that they expected and that it was one of the greatest shows ever.