Concert review: Rush


WARNING: What follows contains, necessarily, not only the requisite whole lotta words (even for me) but also a good number of details (set list specifics, other surprises) that I, personally, would not necessarily want to know if I still had a pending ticket to see this tour. Please tread lightly if you do.

Abandon all objectivity, ye who enter here, for I am a Rush fan. Sorry & Thx.

Nationwide Arena, Columbus, OH – June 8, 2015

There’s a level on which I’m so close to the music of Rush that it makes it functionally impossible to write about the band. That would help explain the excessive amount of time I’ve spent pondering how to start this review over the past several days, or the handful of false starts I did put to page only to subsequently abandon. Note that I never said “write objectively”, because that’s already a non-starter. When it comes to Rush, I am strictly dispassionate, in much the same way that Jack Skellington, George Bailey, Ebenezer Scrooge (reformed), Clark Griswold, or Buddy the Elf can either take the subject of Christmas or leave it. The Canadian power trio has been entrenched as my favorite band for just over two decades now, a position only three other artists have ever even officially held, with comparatively little sense of permanence and for half the time combined. As I settled into my pillbox seat at the Nationwide Arena – an impressive downtown sports-entertainment complex apparently founded on the design conceit that the average hockey fan falls comfortably into a size range somewhere between 5’3” and 5’6” and 120-155 lbs – a married couple struck up a conversation with me. It was their first time seeing Rush…was it also mine? “No!” I blurted out reflexively, before I had time to realize what a tool that made me seem. I apologized for my haughtiness and we had a laugh over it. After some quick mental calculation, I cheerfully offered that it was, in fact, my eighth time seeing Rush, and promised that they were in for a real treat. Though many of our peers had driven from all points of Ohio, these two were, like me, from Columbus. The ticket was a 40th birthday present for her husband. It had just seemed that now was the time to finally see the band. I nodded in assent. “Definitely the best chance you’ll ever get.” Then I thought about what I’d just said.

All the highlights, of that headlong flight / Holding on with all my might / To what I felt back then / I wish that I could live it all again

The implication hung heavy and uneasy in the air between us, agreed upon yet unspoken. After over four decades of life spent as consummate road dogs of the utmost musical virtuosity – a span during which the band instinctively sidestepped larger trends and blazed its own trail through the wilderness, sold many millions of copies of its nineteen original studio albums, released another ten live albums, racked up enough Juno awards (the Canadian Grammy) to feed a gold foundry, became a font of integrity, musical exploration, and sustained excellence for multiple generations of music nerds worldwide (including countless hundreds, many of them outspoken fans, that would go on to form their own bands), and even overcame the long-standing prejudices of the rock critical intelligentsia to essentially muscle its way into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – this was widely rumored to be Rush’s last extended North American tour. Though the band would never confirm such whispers outright, there remained, for fans attuned to the chatter, an elegiac tinge to the air, figuratively thickening it along with help from the requisite fog machines, a feeling that this night might well be the final time I shared a room with Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart. Though those three weren’t with me quite from the beginning, it nevertheless feels like they were, like they could’ve been. I approached this show with a mixture of my usual nervous excitement and overt psychological baggage the likes of which I’d never carried into a venue before. In the grand scheme of things, no musical artist means as much to me as does Rush. I related instantly to the band’s sensibilities, at once so warm and wondering, so jaunty and joyful, so epic and empathetic, basked in its much-lauded, stunning musicality*, not only as a collection of three of the best individual players in rock history – the aforementioned Peart was the idol and unquestioned mountaintop for forty years’ worth and literally thousands of young drummers, myself included – but in its steadfast insistence that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and, as much as anything, identified with its commitment to evolve and explore rather than react to the whims of a fickle, fad-chasing music industry that didn’t recognize, couldn’t contain and, frankly, didn’t deserve to tout, its underdog successes.

*Even ‘70s-‘90s critics that tended to disparage Rush as calorie-free, pretentious noodlers had to reluctantly allow that they were still ultra-talented…which I think, in a prickly sort of way, made them hate the band all the more.

What was the specific appeal though, on a micro level? Well, I loved how they played, first and foremost, and how thoroughly they exhausted the possibilities of their music, always scanning the horizon for other steps to take or stakes to claim rather than mine a particular vein (Zep worship, baroque self-indulgence, elastic uber-prog, crossover alchemy, heavy keyboard augmentation, adult-AOR, garage power, wilderness survival, sophisticated post-millennial stomp) into oblivion. I loved how twisty and unpredictable Rush’s music was always able to remain without sacrificing any of the essential oomph that is part and parcel of a model power trio. Peart’s mathematic but gymnastic drumming, always of paramount importance to the equation that affords Rush its on stage power, was also a clear focal point, and, through his role as primary lyricist, I found myself taken and inspired not just by his prodigious musical talent but his incisive, erudite, emotionally available way with words, which all but earmarked him as the latest in a long line of deep, humanistic artists (Carlin, Vonnegut, Ebert, etc.) I’d come to admire. I still remember my initial exposure to the band, having happened across the quaint but foreboding video to 1984’s “Distant Early Warning” as a kid and being unable to process it to any real degree, except to label it immediately intriguing and remark how utterly unlike anything then being shown on MTV it was. I remember plucking breakthrough album Moving Pictures out of a bargain bin (obscene disrespect, even in the mid-‘80s) then sitting in my mother’s car as she got her hair done, letting the synthesized opening expanse of “Tom Sawyer” wash over me (and over me) at deliciously high volume. I would reach the end of Pictures’ immaculate side one (yes, it was a cassette, the first of three total versions of the album I’d own) and, tellingly, compulsively, rewind it and listen again instead of ever proceeding to “The Camera Eye”. I washed, rinsed, and repeated that exact operation times beyond counting. I remember driving with my best friend three hours to Charlotte, NC to finally see the band live, in an NBA arena on 1994’s Counterparts tour. Though I stood in diametric opposition at the far end of the coliseum, it was still one of the most transcendent extended moments of my concert-going life. At least I think I stood. Technically I must’ve, though I don’t remember my feet touching the floor all night.

All the treasures, the gold and glory / It didn’t always feel that way / I don’t regret it, I’ll never forget it / I wouldn’t trade tomorrow for today

If I’ve gained nothing else from my decision to move to Columbus, Ohio over fifteen years ago, and I certainly have, it has at least afforded me the chance – after so many years of first wondering if I’d ever see Rush live, followed by another several wondering if I’d ever see Rush live again – to see the band another six times over the course of five tours. Each time, I felt not only the same innate emotional connection all over again but also a level of non-specific, omnidirectional gratitude for having the chance to experience it. For this, my seventh time since 1994, my baseline appreciation level was absurdly heightened, having been sharpened by the insidious idea that this evening also represented the definitive end to something I’d held up as so special through the years. Rush isn’t breaking up or anything. They’re just finally slowing down, as 60+-year-old men with families and chronic aches and pains are occasionally prone, and well justified, to do. The metaphorical lump in my throat I brought in with me wasn’t open to logical discussion, however, and soon after the lights finally went out and the throng roared to the introductory movie and the first set’s opening salvos, I felt myself overcome for real. Though “The Anarchist” and the title track are among late period triumph Clockwork Angels’ best songs, they still make fairly odd choices for set openers, particularly when a band has been around long enough to develop its own roster of crowd-pleasing hits, a dozen or more deep, any of which seemingly would’ve done the job better. It’s a measure of the obstinacy with which Rush treats rock convention that the band would eschew “Tom Sawyer”, “The Spirit of Radio” or numerous other winners for the opportunity to open their fortieth anniversary tour with two deep cuts off its latest album. I found the willful perversity of it kind of delightful, even as I also found myself instinctively longing for something more immediately galvanizing. That all changed with song three, Angels’ appropriately propulsive lead single “Headlong Flight”, a song that I probably love as much as any the band has released since “Distant Early Warning”. “Flight” deliberately harkens back musically – besides a throwback > 7-minute length, its foundational guitar riff nakedly, and successfully, approximates the band’s minor 1975 hit “Bastille Day” – while the lyrics take thankful, clear-eyed stock of a life well-lived, without lamenting missed opportunities or decrying cosmic unfairness, never pining for some magical opportunity at a “do-over”, but, rather, a simple, heartfelt wish to relive it from the start, warts and all.

I have stoked the fire on the big steel wheels / Steered the airship right across the stars / I learned to fight, I learned to love, I learned to feel / Oh I wish that I could live it all again

At this point, I kind of lost it, and was as surprised as anybody, or would’ve been if everyone else around me hadn’t been so focused on having fun, as well they should. But, as is so often the case, I couldn’t get out of my head, and, so afflicted, I experienced “Headlong Flight” for the first time ever from the inside out instead of vice versa, in seeming slow motion despite its appreciable and ever-renewing forward momentum, its lovely lyrical sentiments pricking me like icy needles with the finality of what I thought I was witnessing. I was never going to see Rush live again. This was it. I rocked in place a bit (physically, not figuratively), tears suddenly welling in my eyes, wanting desperately not to be feeling what I was, or at least as much as I was, and, for the moment, failing spectacularly. But it was only for a moment. Peart’s figurative airship emerged from the darkened internal clouds of one of his biggest fans and continued its majestic trip across the stars undaunted, picking up speed, and I, thankfully, picked up speed right along with it. By the time of the set’s fourth song, the hard-charging “Far Cry” from 2007’s complex but rewarding Snakes & Arrows, I’d already done something of a 180, and, though it still put me behind the curve of 10,000 or so other fans, was now at least actively appreciating the show for the celebration it was always intended to be. That’s the thing about Rush, a band that has regularly been likened to dinosaurs since the late 1980s (though I’m sure some critics would prefer the cockroach analogy). They don’t appear to be done, not by the longest shot imaginable. Where other legacy artists might delight in long, luxurious sabbaticals and seemingly only reunite for obvious cash grabs, here is a band that has clearly never fallen out of love with A) playing music and B) playing together, one that pounds the hell out of 150-minute sets on a nightly basis, and actively bristled a mere two years ago at being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because, in Geddy Lee’s words, “we’re still a working band.” Their joy in performance is as evident as it ever was, arguably more so, and, as ever, it proved infectious to witness.

I also realized I was witnessing something else early on. From the opening strains of “Far Cry”, a song that came, as it did, on the heels of a trio from the album that followed it, I realized that Rush was playing its set list in reverse chronological order, a bold architectural move that arguably served to illuminate and pay tribute to forty years of history better than a traditional potpourri approach might’ve. When “Far Cry” gave way to Arrows’ moody, majestic instrumental “The Main Monkey Business”, my suspicions were all but confirmed. The motif was also reinforced visually, though subtly at first. The stage initially appeared to be overflowing with signifiers from Rush’s post-millennium tours – the ubiquitous washing machine trio, the steampunk popcorn maker, various other tchotchkes harder to discern from my location, plus Peart’s monstrous, encircling, hybrid acoustic/electronic drumkit – though after a time, literal moving men, red-jumpsuited day laborers seemingly imported directly from the cover of Moving Pictures, started changing around elements while the band was in the act of playing, reordering some, removing several others outright. It took until the second set before I realized their symbolic importance. Lee introduced “One Little Victory”, the inspirational opening track of 2002’s Vapor Trails**, as a “very important song to us”, and Peart’s rhythmic backbone and dexterity made it a standout even before the climactic punctuation by two-story jets of flame. From there, the band accelerated backwards into the preceding millennium, presenting its “life happens” mantra “Roll The Bones” with delightful video accompaniment*** and following that with the much-loved/underplayed opener “Animate” from 1994’s back to basics rock album, Counterparts. Though the band largely downplayed its controversial 1980s “synth” era****, the first set found time to incorporate two of its high water marks and thus end on the highest possible note, given the structural limitations the band had imposed upon itself. The aforementioned late Cold War-era “Distant Early Warning”, the first Rush song I ever heard, remains a knockout, a plea for interpersonal connection delivered through the howl of looming nuclear winter. Set one ended, as a foregone conclusion, with the masterful “Subdivisions”, an empathetic exploration of teenaged ennui in the face of the existential twin wastelands of high school and the suburbs, the song that, even after Moving Pictures briefly made Rush a household name, cemented the bond between the band and so many of the fans that would stay, and grow, with them going forward.

**“Vapor Trails” was the band’s triumphant, near-miraculous return following the darkest period in its history, when, in heartbreakingly short succession, Peart lost his college-aged daughter in a car crash and then his wife to cancer. That was the first time I worried I’d never hear Rush again, with good reason. The album’s lyrics are fascinating to parse, as the famously private Peart applies his typical literate and humanistic lens to now intensely personal matters, and emerges narratively with strength, dignity, and not a little hard-won hope, though in the grand scheme he remains more far philosophical than detail-oriented, as is, I think, proper.

***“Roll The Bones” is justly (in)famous for its goofy “rap” middle section, in which an unseen sage implores listeners to not try to overly govern cosmic mysteries at the expense of living a full life, come what may. I still remember having to disabuse a couple of record store idiots of the notion that Rush had, in fact, become a “rap band”, but I digress. On past tours, the celestial MC manifested on the video screen as a literal rapping skeleton, kicking his truths and dropping science against an irreverent backdrop of floating ulnas and rotating dice. For the “R40” performance, the skeletal MC was replaced by an awesome montage of notable lip-synchers/Rush fans – among them “Game of Thrones”’ Peter Dinklage, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, “I Love You Man”’s Jason Segal and Paul Rudd, and the cast of Canadian white-trash cult comedy “Trailer Park Boys”. You haven’t lived, I feel, until Tyrion Lannister has personally commanded you to “get busy”.

****In total, the band skipped four of its original studio albums when crafting the final set list, all of the exclusions mid to late period and disappointing, or at least conspicuous. I was surprised by the lack of anything from 1989’s “Presto”, though its title track had been featured heavily on recent tours. “Test for Echo” (1996) is among the band’s lowest ebbs, so I was happy it didn’t offer a token song that would’ve potentially squeezed something more worthy out of the set. “Power Windows” (1985) and “Hold Your Fire” (1987) are the teeth and tail end of the keyboard era respectively, and as an unabashed fan of that period, their exclusions hurt, though I can take solace in having heard beloved deep cuts “Grand Designs” and “The Manhattan Project” (with a five-piece string section!) from the former on recent tours. On a night theoretically obsessed with the passage of time, the latter’s gorgeous, wistful lead single “Time Stand Still” should’ve been a no-brainer, one whose absence I definitely felt, though I worry its inclusion might well have triggered a spontaneous “Headlong Flight” relapse, at least in the overly emotionally susceptible among the crowd…like me.

Part of the fun and challenge of being a Rush fan is the process of growing to embrace such a far-ranging and diverse discography, in spite of the fact that you have a definite point of entry that inevitably colors your process. My own point of entry, as mentioned above, was the band’s oft-derided “keyboard era” of the mid-1980s, with its feathered, sub-Flock of Seagulls hair, skinny ties, and awkward, painfully earnest videos for otherwise damned amazing songs. Other fans are holdovers from the period containing the band’s greatest chart successes, while some surely climbed on board in the ‘90s, and others still in the current century. Through the decades, however, it remains the same band. The biggest, or at least most vocal and entitled, fan contingent came of age during Rush’s halcyon early days, which saw them explode from stereotypical arena rock opener into a progressive rock juggernaut. The second set was largely tailored to these people, however hard it might be to uncover a Rush fan worth his or her salt who is any way dismissive of the band’s mid-‘70s output (2112 to, say, Hemispheres). Following a hysterically funny “blooper reel” of outtakes culled from the band’s various outlandish video intros for previous tours (you seriously haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed straight-laced, ultra-polite Canadians acting goofy and casually cursing), Rush presented its very greatest hits – the contractually obligated but still magnificent “Tom Sawyer”, the alternately lovely and blood-pumping “Red Barchetta”, the soaring, splendid musician’s manifesto “The Spirit of Radio” – in a crowd-pleasing block, without ceremony or pause, before moving on promptly to more unexpected terrain. A second song from 1979’s Permanent Waves, the concert rarity “Jacob’s Ladder”, was a strange, surprise replacement for Waves staples both much more radio-friendly (“Freewill”) or more challenging (“Natural Science”), which doesn’t even factor in the fact that, in jumping from Pictures to Waves only two songs in, the band was purposely leaving out two of its biggest hits, the playful instrumental “YYZ” and the resplendent rocker “Limelight”. That such omissions should’ve realistically been expected going in made them no easier to stomach.

Heedless, the band plunged ever backward (“It suits us,” quipped Lee from the stage), playing only the title track from its 1978 prog epic Hemispheres (in the act leaving out Libertarian parable “The Trees” and delirious hyper-instrumental “La Villa Strangiato”) before bookending that song with its own part one, “Cygnus X-1”, from 1977’s A Farewell to Kings. Kings improbably became the only album beside Clockwork Angels in the Rush canon to warrant the three-song treatment for the “R40” set. Concert perennial “Closer to the Heart” remained a touching singalong, complete with gorgeous laser light accompaniment straight out of 1977, while the glorious “Xanadu” (which Geddy and Alex attacked playing double-necked bass and guitar respectively) finally gave way to the long-anticipated opening moments and movements of set-closer “2112”. To be a part of the capacity crowd as it loudly punctuated the spaces in the driving section bridging “Overture” with “The Temples of Syrinx” was to be a part of something even larger. In that moment, recounting its greatest early triumph as the climax of a festive evening that doubled as fond farewell, Rush had truly come full circle, and the crowd was deafening as the band left stage. Following a cheeky, taped Ed Sullivan-style introduction from Eugene Levy, channeling SCTV teen dance show host “Rockin’ Mel Slirrup” (“these fine young lads from Toronto have even opened for Kiss!”), the encore sent Rush further back still, from Caress of Steel’s pleasant “Lakeside Park” to Fly By Night’s rollicking, adrenalized “Anthem”. Throughout the second set, the moving men had been hard at work as the band played, breaking down what began as multiple towers of Marshall amplifiers until there was nothing left, while Peart toiled away on a no less impressive but merely half-enveloping drum kit intended to replicate the rig he’d used around the time of the classic live album Exit…Stage Left. Now, two songs into the encore, the stage was completely bare except for the trio, their instruments, and two standup lights of the sort teenaged garage bands might take “on the road” with them to appear halfway professional.

On cue, a giant mirror ball descended from the lighting apparatus as the video-rendered background changed to an approximated high school gymnasium of the sort the band had played so often in its formative years. The foot-thick chords of 1974’s “What You’re Doing”, a song that had once rallied any number of older metal fans to Rush’s banner immediately upon hearing it, erupted, sounding to me at once never better and, also, completely of a piece with 2007’s “Far Cry”, which may have traded its blunt force impact for the complex caress of a swarm of bees but otherwise swung and pulsed in an appealingly like manner. Whatever sense of blooming loss or bittersweet equivocation I might’ve brought with me to the Nationwide had long since melted away in the presence of one of the best bands in rock history plying its singular trade. For an exquisite moment, I felt, at once, as happy as ever Rush had made me, and as grateful. The show closed, appropriately, with the band’s debut single, “Working Man,” a song that had once helped forge, through serendipitous regional radio play in Cleveland, Detroit, and Ontario, a bond between Rush and a working class fan base that would endure throughout all the many years, and journeys, and detours to come. The next morning, I waxed ecstatic to a friend via email about what the show had meant to me, and, briefly, done to me, then listened to “Headlong Flight” fresh, only to find myself momentarily overcome anew…though, as with the night before, it was only momentary. It’s been over a week since I wrote the first words of this review. I didn’t spend the intervening time idly, but rather racking my brain for memory and context, and, of course, listening to a lot of Rush. Some things never change. Onstage, Geddy Lee couldn’t quite bring himself to call it the end either. “Thank you for 40 amazing years,” he offered instead. “We so appreciate it,” then, pointedly, “We hope to see you again sometime.”

Sometime. Some time. Huh. I sure hope so.

I’ll drive to Chicago some night in 2017, no problem. New York, L.A., Toronto, whatever.

I’ll at least consider it all.

And, as I’ve been since ’94, as I was in 2015, I’ll be ever grateful for the opportunity.

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