Rock the Bells

Holy God. 20 hours of practically no food, 90 degree weather, writing sweaty bodies, drunk unconscious people and all-around awesome. I’ve got a cough right now from inhaling all that dust or maybe just from the dehydration.

I don’t normally do big concerts and festivals, and not just for financial reasons. I don’t really have the temperament for that sort of thing. A lot of my friends go to concerts specifically to fight their way towards the front of the audience and then get their asses kicked by the crush of people around them. One person I know got hit square in the chest by someone and ended up almost losing consciousness in the first aid tent. A couple other people were getting wasted as a side-effect of their dehydration. And one guy came home with a little blood on his shirt and completely unsure of where it came from.

They all think that kind of stuff is awesome. Me? I was just there for the music. So whenever things got kind of crazy I hung back. But I guess I can kind of see the appeal. Sure it was too hot, too dirty and too humid, but that all added to the excitement.

Anyway, here are some of the performances I saw, in order:

Jedi Mind Tricks
Not too familiar with these guys, but a decent show. Immortal Technique was next, and I’m not too wild about him. He’s a talented lyricist but his paranoid, violent imagery and self-righteous lecturing verges on self-parody. Still what I saw of the tail end of his show was good and his speech about hip-hop bringing people together, if self-indulgent, was still interesting.

Pharoahe Monch
This was one of my favorite shows. I had listened to a little of his stuff but it didn’t prepare me for the live show. I certainly wasn’t anticipating the live instrumentation, something that I wish rappers did more often. I’m definitely listening to more of this guy based on his performance at Rock the Bells.

Mos Def and Talib Kweli
What can I say about these guys that hasn’t been said before? Black Star is arguably the best hip-hop duo in history and it was great to see them back in action again. And the big audience chant of, “1, 2, 3, Mos Def and Talib Kweli” was probably the greatest group sing-along of the festival.

Sage Francis
I was a little disappointed at the lack of a live band, and a little bit more disappointed that he didn’t yell, “YOU CAN’T KILL ME, MOTHERFUCKER!” in the middle of the song Dance Monkey. But it was still a great show and Sage showed off some of his ridiculous dance moves. Despite the heavy content of his lyrics, he was clearly having a lot of fun and the fact that he was having so much fun made the audience have a lot more fun.

Besides, he’s an amazing lyricist, maybe the best in hip-hop today. I wouldn’t even be into hip-hop if I hadn’t been introduced to him and one of the highlights of the festival was that I got to shake his hand later that evening and tell him that to his face. A lot of his biggest detractors call him self-righteous, arrogant and narcissistic because of the political and autobiographical content of his lyrics and the heavy use of metaphor but when I talked to him he was very friendly and humble. Just because his stuff is very poetic and lyrically dense doesn’t make him a douchebag – it makes him extremely intelligent.

Public Enemy
They were playing at the same time as Sage (and very loudly; at one point Sage said, “I can hear these guys as well as I can hear myself.”), so I only caught the tail end. It was kind of sad – these guys are hip-hop legends, but the set was pretty anemic and ruined by the presence of Flavor Flav, who has become everything that Public Enemy was originally against. And to ruin it, he just wouldn’t shut the fuck up.

Flav started off by bragging about his various insufferably stupid TV shows (The Surreal Life, Flavor of Love, I Love New York, etc.) and then went on to introduce all of his children onstage, brag about how good of a parent he was, yell two painfully drawn-out “Yeah, boyyyyyyyyy!”s, do a drum solo and take a courageous stand against social injustice by leading the audience in chanting “Fuck Bush!” and “Fuck racism!” I’m afraid that the showboating, narcissistic, shallow corporate twerp has ruined the quintessential protest hip-hop group forever. Way to dick up the legacy of a music legend.

The Roots
These guys are a perfect example why live instrumentation and hip-hop are such an amazing combination. Amazing protest anthems went off into lengthy jazz improvisations live and the whole thing was just flawless and beautiful, particularly when they played “Don’t Feel Right.” Not even the annoying drunk guy nearby who was trying futilely to mosh to jazz could detract from a set like these.

Cypress Hill
“How I Could Just Kill a Man,” is a great song, but Rage clearly improved on it when they covered it so strangely enough it was kind of a step down to hear the original band perform it. Plus one of the guys from Cypress Hill just wouldn’t shut up about marijuana. Even if you’re really, really into weed, how much can you possibly talk about how awesome it is when you’re supposed to be performing a concert?

Wu-Tang Clan
I was probably the only person there who wasn’t a big Wu-Tang fan, but I will still admit that they are, clearly, nothing to fuck with. The music was annoyingly repetitive but it didn’t really matter because of the incredible energy coming off of both the group and the audience.

Rage Against the Machine
Speaking of incredibly energy, the crowd for this show was absolutely nuts, and for good reason. Not even my friends who are normally into moshing could handle it for more than three songs. I hung back for the whole thing and watched it from a distance, but even very far away from the stage the sound was overwhelming and the place was densely packed. There was a group of crazy shirtless guys under one viewing screen that just waved their arms around and charged into each other at top speed.

They played a lot of Evil Empire songs, which was kind of weird because it’s pretty much universally held that Evil Empire is their weakest album. But the songs sounded significantly better live than they did on the album and it was hard not to get swept up in the energy. It was just amazing watching them all do their thing.

It seems like it would be a serious oversight to not end with this post with a music video. Since Guerilla Radio is not only my favorite Rage song but also one of the best ones to hear live, here’s a video of another great performance:

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