As the Flobots launched into the title track of their major-label breakout album, “Fight With Tools,” emcee Brer Rabbit raised a clenched fist toward the house lights and urged everyone in the audience with talent, dreams and optimism to put those “tools” in their hands and raise them triumphantly. The fight — for equality, community, sanity and all the other values present in any band that ever mattered — was on.
Nearly every fist in the packed Aggie Theatre on Thursday was raised. Then the band kicked into the song and nailed it.
In nearly any other band’s hands, the episode would have been a trite bit of audience manipulation. That night it was quintessential Flobots, wrapping up everything the Denver band’s set its watch to: Opitimism, activism and its trademark blend of hip-hop and alt-rock. For a jaded punk wrapped in black leather and indifference such as myself, it wasn’t so much an epiphany as a much needed reminder: Nihilistic recriminations can only go so far. If we’re going to tear down the old world, we’ve got to be ready to rebuild a better one to take its place.
It’s a lesson, of course, taught by a long line of Most Important Bands — from the Clash and Billy Bragg to Rage Against the Machine and Sleater-Kinney — but Flobots’ refresher course is particularly well taught. We can’t just challenge authority. We have to challenge ourselves.
It wasn’t a night of activist proselytizing, though: Flobots are entertainers, after all, and darn good ones. Brer Rabbit and emcee Jonny 5 traded flows through familiar songs like “Rise,” “We Are Winning,” “There’s a War Going on for Your Mind” and, of course, “Handlebars,” as Mackenzie Roberts’ viola and occasional vocals jarred the act out of live hip-hop forms.
The new songs stole the show, though, and hinted that the band’s next album, “Survival Story,” which is tentatively due out early next year, should be a worthy successor to “Fight With Tools.” New jams, like “Cracks in the Surface,” “You Don’t Have to Be A Soldier” and “Survival Story” caught the band stretching out from alt-funk to heavier sounds, as guitarist Andy Guerrero expands his bag of tricks to emulate Rage’s Tom Morello’s mix of hammer-ons and pickup-switch juggling. The Flobots aren’t just taking aim at the generalized evils of the world either, as Jonny 5 threw down the gauntlet to cross-town rivals 3OH!3, turning the misogyny in the other act’s “Don’t Trust Me” into a weapon against it: “Do the Helen Keller and confront male arrogance,” he taunted. The crowd erupted.
We all know that revolution (or bipartisan reform, if that’s more your style) begins at home, and the Flobots are back home in Colorado leading the charge. It’s going to take more than slogans and tracks stolen from a torrent site to do it, though: Are you up to the task of rebuilding the community around you, Centennial State? After catching the Flobots in action, it’s hard to imagine anyone could say no.
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Matt Schild is co-founder and editor of Aversion.com, which has been grumpily chronicling the underground since 1999. He’s also written for most all of Denver’s weeklies at one point or another, as well as wracking up bylines in an ominous number of failed glossy music rags.