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Rage Against the Machine Returns for Fresh Battles

CHICAGO — Four songs into Rage Against the Machine’s set Monday night at the United Center, the frontman Zack de la Rocha pulled up with a limp, hobbling across the stage while the rest of the band closed out “Bullet in the Head,” a jaggedly groovy anti-propaganda anthem from the band’s 1992 self-titled debut album. Early in the song, he’d been jumping, bounding toward the arena ceiling. At its end, he was carried offstage by crew members.

His bandmates followed him, but after just a few moments, they were all back, with de la Rocha planted on a monitor on the right of the stage, his left leg stuck at an obtuse angle.

“If I have to crawl across this stage, we’re going to play for y’all tonight,” he said. “We came too far,” salting the exhortation with an expletive.

“Far” could have meant the decade-plus since the band last performed live, or the two-decades-plus since it released its last album. It might have meant the intense preparations to return to the road for these shows, the Public Service Announcement Tour, which was originally scheduled to begin in March 2020, but was derailed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Or perhaps it meant “far” in a more spiritual, conceptual sense — Rage is a band indelibly linked with the 1990s, when its anticapitalist rap-rock filled amphitheaters and festival grounds. It was the defining political act of that decade, its success a reminder that radical ideas could be conveyed through crisp-edged rock, reaching the ideologically aligned and, almost certainly, many who were not. For a band with a comparatively slim discography — four studio albums, one of which is a set of covers — it had outsized impact.

Think of the two and a half years since Rage was originally meant to return to the road: the efforts to overturn the 2020 election and the assault on the Capitol, the ongoing scourge of police violence against Black people, the striking down of Roe v. Wade. Maybe “too far” means too far to give up ground now.

Rage greeted this current social and political moment with a blistering torrent of controlled chaos in a concert that was part fist-pumping chant-along, part corporeal surrender. For 90 minutes — most of which de la Rocha, 52, conducted from his perch at the side of the stage — Rage was vital and ferocious. “Sleep Now in the Fire” was rowdy and tart, and “Guerrilla Radio” used groove to drive home agitated lyrics. “Killing in the Name,” which closed the show, brought the room to a rousing call and response about police injustice.

After “Wake Up,” de la Rocha engaged in a quick sermon. “The ruling class in this country has proved itself unworthy of ruling anybody,” he said, urging the crowd to help “to fight back this fascist tide.”

At times the group emphasized its points with text and video. During “Freedom,” the screen behind the band flashed with information about forced birth’s relationship to maternal mortality, lack of parental leave and lack of universal health care, concluding with the exhortation “Abort the Supreme Court.” Videos depicted a police van engulfed in flames, a snarling police dog chasing after a suspect, a helicopter hovering over a boat full of migrants. (This will almost certainly be the only major tour this year at which local activists hand out leaflets outside the venue reading “Who is the Chicago billionaire family who get richer every time a bomb drops? And what can be done about it? #CancelCrown.”)

Underneath the maelstrom was a certain smoothness, underscoring the ways in which the band, still in its original lineup — de la Rocha, Tom Morello on guitar, Tim Commerford on bass and sometime backup vocals and Brad Wilk on the drums — has matured in the three decades since its debut album. In its early days, it could at times be blunt and inelegantly dogmatic. But there is a polished fervor to them now. Morello occasionally displays flash on the guitar, like the D.J.-esque filigree on “Bulls on Parade,” and the combined rhythm section of Commerford and Wilk build a dense, rollicking foundation.

Even sitting down, as he did for the majority of the show, de la Rocha remained magnetic. His rapping was more liquid than it was at the outset of his career, finding cleaner pockets and also utilizing the spaces between syllables as effectively as the syllables themselves. His only ostentation was a fuschia-ish T-shirt. (Fear not, though — it was advertising the stridently independent punk label Dischord.)

When de la Rocha released his first solo single in 2016, “Digging for Windows,” it was produced by El-P, who had been a stalwart of New York’s independent rap scene in the mid- to late 1990s and also produced scabrous, industrial hip-hop for others, including the Atlanta sage Killer Mike.

Run the Jewels — the duo of El-P and Killer Mike — is the opening act on this tour, making for a bill that pairs different generations and philosophies of agit-rap. Its set was chaotic fun, jittery and rambunctious. Their words poured out in fusillades that were sometimes hard to parse in the cavernous space, but protest manifests in myriad ways — the production that’s both nervy and nervous, the light sense of mayhem and mischief that coats all of their songs.

Both outfits have aligned politics. “It’s always us against them, us against the oligarchs,” Killer Mike warned. The duo dedicated “Walking in the Snow” to people who have lost their lives “at the hands of people that were paid to protect them.”

But there is a wryness to Run the Jewels, even at their most impassioned. For them, American dystopia is tragicomedy; for Rage, it’s a call to arms.

That said, Rage is not wholly without a sense of humor. At the show’s end, the house lights went up, and the group members hugged for a long stretch, then faced the crowd and gazed upon them like long-lost family members they’d just reconnected with. As they left the stage, the speakers in the arena began pumping Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” — a bit of irony, a bit of nihilism, a bit of revolutionary optimism.

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