Review: Prophets of Rage send out mixed messages at DTE

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Thursday night at DTE Energy Music Theatre, Prophets of Rage followed through in its mission statement to make America rage again.

What exactly that phrase means depends on whom you ask.

Prophets of Rage perform Thursday Sept. 1, 2016 the  Make America Rage Again Tour at DTE Music Energy Theatre in Clarkston.

In its simplest form, it meant hearing the renegade funk of Rage Against the Machine played live by three-fourths of the explosive ’90s rock outfit.

This being a heated political year, the time is ripe for another brush with Rage, though with frontman Zach de la Rocha opting to sit this one out, the rest of the band did, well, not necessarily the next best thing, but a thing: They called up Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Cypress Hill’s B-Real and decided to dust off all their old classics.

Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy were kindred spirits, making progressive music with a social agenda and putting their militant politics at the forefront of their message. Cypress Hill, on the other hand, never had much on its mind besides smoking weed, but hey, Rage once covered “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” so might as well invite B-Real to the party as well.

On paper, Prophets of Rage is a can’t-miss proposition, especially for anyone with fond memories of the ’90s Alternative Nation (though most probably used Rage’s anthems as a soundtrack to not cleaning their rooms rather than lending a hand to the Zapatistas).

Live, they’re a different animal, at their best bringing together the powers of some of the most popular forces in music in the last 30 years, and at their worst recalling that time Jay-Z and Linkin Park hooked up for a gnarly mash-up sesh.

Thursday’s show, which played to roughly a half-house, opened with the band hitting the stage in familiar poses — Tom Morello had his guitar pointed at the audience like a shotgun, Chuck D had his fist raised in the air and B-Real was puffing on a blunt — and tearing into “Prophets of Rage,” which hit with the force of a slug to the chest. (The band name Prophets of Rage is derived from a lyric in “Lost at Birth,” the opening track from Public Enemy’s “Apocalypse 91” album, PE’s last truly great effort.) A massive banner dropped behind the sparsely decorated stage, bearing the group’s Shepard Fairey-designed logo. Things were off to a ripper of a start.

Then, immediately, they veered off course. During “Guerilla Radio,” Chuck D — whose flow is slower and more deliberate than de la Rocha’s Molotov cocktail delivery – threw to the audience during the “what better place than here, what better time than now” section, undercutting the power of one of the most supercharged lyrics in the Rage discography. And Chuck’s physicality was off; while the other band members were in strict rock and roll mode, Chuck was dancing in circles, holding his microphone out in front of him and swinging it back and forth like he was chopping wood, and looking like a happy-go-lucky dude rather than a Prophet of Rage.

Which is where B-Real stepped up to the plate. He was positioned at center stage and played the frontman role for most of the show, carrying anthems like “Calm Like a Bomb” and “Bullet in the Head” with convincing aplomb. (The latter was the show’s undisputed powder keg of a highlight.) B-Real never had much to say — has he ever? — but Prophets needs a rock star at its helm, and it found one in the high-pitched, nasally voiced rapper. (Ironically, “Rock Superstar,” the Cypress Hill song most suited to the Rage playbook, didn’t make the cut on Thursday.)

Throughout the night, Morello unleashed several solos that sounded like they were ripping open the heavens, while bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk kept the train on the tracks. While the Rage songs worked best, some of the experiments were iffy, like when PE’s “She Watch Channel Zero?!” was fused with Audioslave’s “Cochise.” (Do whatever you want with the Rage songbook, dudes, but let’s leave Audioslave out of this.)

Midway through the 95-minute show, the Rage guys took a break while Chuck D and B-Real ran through a medley of PE and Cypress Hill hits, with Chuck D closing the set, bizarrely, by touching on House of Pain’s “Jump Around.”

Prophets of Rage perform Thursday night in Clarkston.

Which leads back to the question of what Prophets of Rage and making America rage again is really all about. In “Fight the Power” — mashed up Thursday with the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” in a gross misrepresentation of its intent — Chuck D. famously rails against Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” as frivolous tripe, but House of Pain’s “Jump Around” is fair game? It seemed beneath him, and for much of the show, Chuck looked out of his element and off-message.

But what was the message? The band steered clear of any overt politicking, though Chuck at one point muttered something about “Trump-Hillary (expletive)-ery” and Morello showed off a sign on the back of his guitar that said “Nobody for President.” (The front of his guitar said “arm the homeless” — does anyone think that’s a good idea?)

Late in the show, a portion of the proceeds for which benefited Clarkston relief agency Forgotten Harvest, Morello explained the group advocates “confronting injustice,” whether it be at home, at work, at school or elsewhere in the world. “But that can wait until tomorrow,” he said. “Tonight we’re here to have a good time.”

In other words, “What better place than somewhere else, what better time than tomorrow.” Now there’s a slogan for Prophets of Rage.