Rush's opening night at the Forum Wednesday started quite literally with a bang -- several of them. Understandably elated that their band had finally overcome critical barbs and radio apathy to perch comfortably in the Top Ten, the band's fans unleashed a loud, foolhardy barrage of firepower: a string of firecrackers, a smoke bomb, two skyrockets and three huge explosions. All that before the band had been on stage for 15 minutes.
Such a welcome has been a long time coming for Rush, a Canadian hard rock trio that stuggled for six years and seven albums before last year's "Permanent Waves" album made it one of rock's biggest draws. And try as it did Wednesday, the band's show didn't pack half the jolt of the fans' overture. The music was a lot safer, to be sure, but also far less explosive.
Rush's audience has always been remarkably dedicated; the size of that audience didn't significantly increase, though, until 1977, when the group released "2112" -- ironically a concept album telling people, in singer Geddy Lee's words, "to leave us alone." The real breakthrough came when radio stations that had been uncomfortable with the band's highfalutin 20-minute suites snapped up last year's brisk, tuneful "Spirif of Radio" single -- even more ironically a vicious anti-radio tune.
That song, "Free Will" and a few concise rockers from Rush's new album, "Moving Pictures," are the best parts of its repertoire. But they're perilously close to throwaways onstage; sandwiched between smoke, explosions and convoluted epics like "Xanadu" and "Hemispheres," they're almost buried by the band's Big Statements (libertarian statements, by the way -- influenced by author Ayn Rand).
In addition to their poor placement, the short songs sounded muddy and plodding Wednesday. As a bass/drums/guitar trio, Rush thankfully can't clutter up its heavy metal sound with incessant solos or frequent instrumental flourishes; but by the same token, the lineup and the sound mix give undue weight to Neil Peart's drums and Lee's bass. What emerges is one of the most leaden, bottom-heavy sounds in rock, broken only by guitarist Alex Lifeson's straining guitar, Lee's occasional keyboards and his squeaky "Chipmunks-sing-heavy-metal" voice.
All three are skilled musicians -- Lifeson in particular has a fluid style occasionally reminiscent of ex-Genesis ace Steve Hackett. But they were hard-pressed to breathe any life into the jagged suites that dominated the show; Rush seemingly writes songs by jamming loose bits and pieces together with abrupt transitions; it's a style that spells boredom, not momentum.
Still, there were always the fireworks to keep you on the edge of your seat. Or the though that maybe they'd play some more of the evening's most enjoyable song: the Surfari's "Wipe Out," which was used as a 20-second song introduction and promised far more wit and style than the rest of the set ever delivered. Ditto for the opening act, FM, a nondescript hard rock outfit whose fairly melodic but undistinguished songs couldn't live up to titles like "Set your Face on Stun."