Open Ears: On The Road With Rush

"Open Ears" by Steve Morse, Guitar For The Practicing Musician, Part 1 July 1986, and Part 2 August 1986, transcribed by pwrwindows

[Transcribers Note: Steve Morse wrote an ongoing column for GFPM called "Open Ears", and in 1986 published a two part story where he documented opening for Rush on the Power Windows tour, presented here as one transcript.]

Part One

Guitar For The Practicing Musician, July 1986

Before we ever met Rush, we spent a lot of time talking to their production manager. He asked us how many mikes, inputs and direct boxes we would need. He wanted a diagram of our stage layout and how many cabinets we would use. This was so he could get a picture of our whole stage setup, down to how many feet we would need, so they could arrange how much of the stage had to be moved and where a curtain had to be dropped in order to cover their setup.

They had such a monstrous board that we had our own channels in the PA. All of our direct boxes and things of that nature were taped and used just for us. One of the reasons we were good for the tour was because we could get off the stage quickly. We were pushing that point, and to make sure we could back it up we had a three-man crew of our own. We had a sound man, a light man, plus a guy on stage. So when we finished playing and the guys out front were walking through the crowd toward the stage, the stage guy would already be tearing us down. That only saved a minute or two, but it was worth it. It was something I knew had to be. I had worked before in situations where you wanted to be off the stage in less than ten minutes. By keeping the equipment as simple as possible and having enough guys in there, we were able to do that.

The key thing was starting on time, ending on time and getting off quickly. Every minute of overtime in a show like that can result in thousands of dollars in overtime payments to the stage hands. They're the guys who operate the fork lifts and move the equipment from the top of the stage to the floor. In some cities they have to handle everything and the road crew can only tell them what plug to pull. Those shows are usually the slowest of all.

The next step was idiot-proofing the equipment with new cords and setting up spares for individual pieces, wherever possible. We also made a small investment into these Boss battery-powered tuners that were indispensable. We wired A/B switches into the tuners so that if we hit a switch the signal to the amp was cut off and routed into the tuner.

We had practiced the set with an eye toward cutting down the time by cutting our own parts. We found we were ending right on the limit but we wanted to talk, and say a few words. We also had to be prepared for starting late. For instance, if you are ready to go five minutes early and the house lights don't go off until two minutes after showtime, that's two minutes less that you're going to get to play, regardless of the fact that it wasn't your fault. So you've got to be ready to cut things out.

After getting the equipment idiot-proofed and knowing how to cut the set, we called to see if they had selected their PA, to see if we could get on their truck. A fairly common practice is for the headlining act that employs the semis to strike a deal with the opening act to rent out space on their truck.

We knew there was a possibility of that but we had to wait until the last minute when they selected all of their gear, put it on the truck, and saw how it looked. It turned out we couldn't do it, so we scrambled and rented the smallest truck that would fit everything. That pretty much put us on the road. Stay tuned.

Part Two

Guitar For The Practicing Musician, August 1986

The first time we met Rush was the night before the opening show. They were doing a full stage rehearsal including lights and sound. We got to go out front with an empty house and watch the show. We met after the rehearsal and they were all surprisingly friendly. It was easy rolling after that.

A key thing was the starting time of 7:30 pm. instead of the usual 8:00 pm. Since we had 35 minutes, if somebody came at 8:00 and took his time about getting to his seat thinking he would see both bands, all he'd see was us just walking off the stage. The worst of those people were our own guests, who would come at 8:15 and miss the whole set. Because the show started so much earlier than I'd ever experienced, we designed the set with a couple of vocals, thinking that many people would not get to hear the whole thing. The vocals would help sustain the interest of the people who had never heard the band before. We found that instrumental music in big arenas tends to run together. Imagine an album with the reverb turned up all the way, and that's what it sounds like in a lot of halls. We tried to pick songs that were slower and more deliberate. Definite themes were more easily heard. Solo-wise, I tried to do lots of phrasing, start solos lower than usual and play phrases that wouldn't get lost. If there was a flurry of notes, I realized that they would come out as a blur.

With a 35-minute set everybody voted on what to play. The consensus was that we'd better keep moving. There was no room for the acoustic guitar or the country stuff. We came up with a rock-oriented set, figuring that a lot of people came just to see Rush and would relate to that more than anything else. Since people would be coming in halfway through the set, they would see only 17 minutes' worth and there was no need to play a slow one. Because people were walking in fresh we knew they wanted to hear something with some energy behind it. It was pretty much a non-stop show.

One of the tunes that went over best was "Cruise Missile." Another was "Cruise Control." "Stand Up" was a vocal that had room for the obligatory audience participation. Terry, the vocalist, did such a great job and the audiences were so willing that, to my complete amazement, it worked every single time.

One thing we learned along the way was that general admission seats meant the best show for us. Because there were no reserved seats, people got there early. If our soundcheck got cut off because the doors had to be opened early, it was okay because if the crowds were there at 7:30, we knew we could change the set a little and do some of the more challenging material first. We also learned that you can look at a coliseum and, by the shape of the back wall and its texture, tell what it's going to sound like because of the reflection.

One of the most asked questions I got on the tour was if I jammed with Alex Lifeson. The answer is no. We spent a lot of time hanging out, but the show was tightly structured. The guy they hired to take care of business and make sure the show didn't go a minute overtime had to have some authority to do his job. It might have cost $5,000 in overtime to jam.

We left the tour after three legs. This tour was an act of friendship, a gift to begin with. It's pretty rare to find a band that can sell the house by themselves and just wants an opening act they like, because they want to give their fans a nice, long show. It wasn't based on politics but on Rush saying, "We want these guys to do the tour." That's what set the tone for the whole tour. As I've tried to convey, they were great guys to work with.