Chicago rock band Rise Against makes its Voodoo Experience debut Friday on the festival’s biggest stage. The foursome’s latest album, “The Black Market,” entered Billboard’s Top 200 album chart at No. 3 in July.
Singer-guitarist Tim McIlrath regrets that Rise Against can’t see more of Voodoo Experience’s three days of music in City Park. After its Voodoo set, the band must leave for Sheffield, England, the first stop on a 16-date U.K. and European tour.
Despite the brevity of McIlrath’s Voodoo visit, he’s excited about playing the Friday music schedule that includes him.
“I looked at the lineup and I love it,” he said. “It’s all over the board, a little bit of everything, which will be exciting.”
Rise Against is sharing Friday in the park with 26 other acts, including Slayer, Melvins and New Orleans trombone collective Bonerama.
McIlrath jammed with Bonerama some years ago in New Orleans during a three-day retreat sponsored by Revolutions Per Minute (formerly called Air Traffic Control). The organization encourages musicians and comedians to incorporate social and political activism in their work.
During the retreat, McIlrath and Bonerama performed “Ohio,” Neil Young’s protest song about the 1970 killing of four students by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University during an anti-war demonstration. “We did a memorable version of ‘Ohio’ the last time I saw Bonerama,” he said. “Everything they touch turns into an epic.”
Performing topical songs such as “Ohio” comes naturally to Rise Against. In the 1990s, when the young, impressionable McIlrath was attending punk and hardcore rock shows in Chicago, he was more interested in the message than the music. Those various shows benefitted causes such as domestic violence awareness programs and environmental activism.
“They triggered my interest in being a musician,” he said. “So I came in the back door. And through those channels, I learned a lot about the world. The first time I heard the word ‘sweatshop’ or heard about environmentalism was at punk-rock shows.
“That was when I said, ‘I want to be a part of that.’ I could see playing in a band if there was something bigger behind it, not just selling tickets and records.”
Being in a band that addresses social and political issues hasn’t stopped Rise Against from being successful. Internationally, the group has sold more than 4 million albums. “Endgame,” its 2011 album, debuted at No. 1 in Germany and Canada and No. 2 in the U.S.
Commercial success, McIlrath said, “that came as a shock to us, because we weren’t careerists. When we started this band, we were just four kids banging around in garages and basements, playing loud, fast, aggressive, physical music. I didn’t see that reaching the mainstream. I didn’t see being a headliner at the Voodoo festival.”
There are some precedents for songwriters finding great success with topical material. Bruce Springsteen, for one.
“I think it reflects growing audiences in America and elsewhere who want music to ask the same questions that they’re asking themselves,” McIlrath said. “They want songs to distill this really complicated moment in history. That’s hard to put into words or into an article but, sometimes, a song will do it.”