I should have known the evening was going to be sabotaged when - thanks to the ever-efficient New York subway system - I was 25 minutes late to meet my ride out to the arena with an editor of Circus magazine. Maybe because he knew I was reviewing the show for METAL, he purposely made sure we parked the car as far away from the arena as possible! We were further delayed by having to wait for his friend to change out of his "Payne Webber work clothes" into jeans and a sweatshirt, so that by the time we trekked ever walkways and parking lots strewn with empty beer bottles and cans, Marillion were already on stage and 20 minutes into their opening set.
I've been fascinated with Marillion for the lest few years. Initially, the band were categorized as a progressive/rock group in the fine British tradition of Genesis, Gentle Giant and Yes. Then European magazines like England's Kerrang! started picking up on lead singer Fish in his bizarre and elaborately patterned face makeup, and there emerged a new, heavy metal aura about the band. Most recently, Marillion have enjoyed increased radio play with their hits/singles "Kayleigh" and "Lavender." The visual exposure on MTV via videos has once again altered the perception of the group to a pop/rock entity. It's no wonder, then. that Marillion's audience is so confused about what the band are about in concert.
Apparently, the group opened their set with " Kayleigh," which I was disappointed to have missed. From our seats, the sound of the rest of the songs was muddy and the vocals lacked clarity making one song almost indistinguishable from another. My main impression was that Marillion onstage are most like the first image we came to know them by. Several fans in the seats around me took up the chant of "Genesis!" for a while, demonstrating their feelings. They should have listened to Marillion's albums before coming to the show. The band does write some unique and creative songs of their own. Too bad this was lost in the sound system.
Most of the audience watched the band politely if not enthusiastically. When the too-short set was over, many people in the floor seats gave Marillion a stomping, standing ovation. Despite this outburst, the house-lights went on, cancelling any hopes of an encore.
After a short intermission, Rush took the stage and it was clear that this was what the crowd had come to see. Wasting no time, they dove headfirst into some of their most popular songs, opening with "Free Will," "Limelight" and "The Big Money" without time to catch your breath. An elaborate rear-screen projection system flashed a series of visual stimuli behind the band. Everything from film clips, laser effects and animation fed eye-candy to the almost sold-out house.
Rush - amazingly - manage to get a very full sound for a trio, and any audio problems Marillion experienced were not evident for the headliners. Even the huge stage seemed to be filled by the presence of Geddy Lee hopping between the keyboard on the extreme right to front-and-center to play bass. Alex Lifeson on guitars to the left, and drummer Neil Peart just recessed from center. Other than the aforementioned projections, the stage show consisted mainly of spotlights in ever-changing colors dancing around the stage and focusing on the members of the group as they ran back and forth. There was one point - during "Mystic Rhythms" - when the front wall of the stage was lit up by spots cleverly hidden below, shining red, green and blue lights up onto the surface and creating a very effective African-like pattern moving to the beat of the song. But the green and blue lasers being shot towards the rear of the arena were somewhat uneventful and didn't warrant the cheers which greeted them. Twice, flashpots went off on either side of the stage to emphasize lyrics, but these types of pyrotechnics - along with some sparse smoke - are better left to experts in the matter like Kiss or Iron Maiden.
The old ploy that the audience is there to be seen as much as to see was employed when two huge airport-runway-like banks of tights were turned on to ignite the hall. The same reaction occurs whenever a TV camera is present: the fans increase their whistling, cheering, shouting, waving their lists in the air and jumping around, trying to get noticed by the band, and each other. Suffice it to say the audience went wild.
Highlights of the set included renditions or many tunes off Rush's new Power Windows album, including "Manhattan Project." "Marathon," and "Territories." Old favorites "Red Sector A," "Closer To The Heart," "Distant Early Warning" and "Tom Sawyer" were greeted with cheers of admiration. Lee continues to exhibit one of the most distinctive voices in rock 'n' roll.
Rush has been described as a thinking-man's band. The lyrics are intelligent and thought-provoking. Even the visuals seem well thought-out, so as not to talk down to their fans. Judging by the drunken and stoned stupor many in the audience seemed to be in, it looks to me like Rush's music can be enjoyed on a number of levels.
An editor of a guitar-oriented magazine I ran into backstage told me that because he had arrived early, he had the distinct pleasure of getting to catch Geddy Lee eating dinner. Decked out in a long flowing robe, Lee looked like the embodiment of the image the band have of themselves: "mystical philosophers of the Western world." Meeting up with the editor from Circus again after the show for our ride home. I was treated to a brief explanation of how, alter sharing seven Rush shows in the last 10 years with his companion, "Mr. Circus" could still enjoy their performances because of the intelligence demonstrated in the band's lyrics. As we gingerly stepped over broken bottles and around patrons discharging the contents of their stomachs all over the asphalt, I thought, "That's easy for you to say, but it's only rock `n' roll to me."