ALEX LIFESON of Rush did not invent the air guitar, but he sure popularized it. For 25 years, his careening guitar runs on songs such as "Red Barchetta" and "Freewill" led folks to ape his style in Camaros and concert halls everywhere.
While bassist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart, the other two members of the long-running Canadian prog-rock group, go about their duties, what does Lifeson look for when he sees 30,000 people duplicating his solos on imaginary axes?
"I watch their fingering very closely to see if they know how to play," says Lifeson, calling from his Toronto home. "It's a compliment that somebody gets off on it as much as I do. I'm lucky I have a guitar in my hand, because I'd probably be doing the same thing."
Rush fans are worried that this tour, which pulls into the Shoreline Amphitheater on Sunday (May 11), will be the band's last. Lifeson doesn't think so, but he isn't itching to get back on the road either. "Before we went out on the road with this tour, we all kind of felt that touring was not that important to us anymore," he says. "It was a terrific physical drain as well as an emotional drain being away from the family."
The tour to support the band's latest album, Test for Echo (Atlantic), acknowledges the need to scale back on the trying theatrics. It features a very casual stage setup with cardboard cutouts of Pamela Lee and the Three Stooges, and more off days have been scheduled. With no opening act, the band could play more material and wait around less. The second leg of the tour will also see some set-list changes to freshen things up. While "Limelight" makes it back into the show, "Subdivisions" and "Nobody's Hero" might be dropped.
"We went out and did the first two runs, and we had the best time playing live," Lifeson says. "That extra hour of playing time really made a difference. We got to play more material. I think in the future, Neil isn't keen on touring. If we tour again, we would do it similar to this but with fewer dates. I think we will continue touring for a while, for sure."
Has Rush ever considered adding a second guitarist, maybe to lighten Lifeson's load? "It probably would be fun, and I wouldn't have a problem with it, but we've been this way for so long," says Lifeson about Rush's 25 years together. "It's like, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' And I'm up for the challenge of fitting in the role of a three-piece."
RUSH'S ABILITY to adapt to - and incorporate - musical trends is one reason the band hasn't dozed through a decade-long sleepwalk like Genesis. Test for Echo reveals techno and electronica influences (Lifeson cites Underworld and the Chemical Brothers as recent favorites) intertwined with the relentless musicianship that is Rush's trademark. The fact that Lifeson, Lee and Peart are still making music and talking to each other while other groups break up after two albums is a miracle in itself.
"We get along real well," Lifeson answers. "We're great friends. We just happen to do stuff on a professional level that's real important to us. We're quite unified in direction and what we expect from of each other - and ourselves - as musicians and songwriters. More important than that, we laugh a lot together and have fun together even after 25 years. How many friends do you have since you were 15 years old that you still hang around with? We love being together. Simple as that."
Lifeson sums up the familiar songwriting process that tags most Rush songs: "Music by Lee and Lifeson; lyrics by Peart." The group works in a rented studio outside of Toronto.
"There's a small house, and we stay there through the week," Lifeson explains. Lee and Lifeson set up a work area with a console, ADATs and a computer. Meanwhile, drummer Peart is at the other end of the house working on lyrics all day and practicing. During the evenings, the three musicians discuss direction and lyrical and musical changes. That process lasts for anywhere from six to eight weeks and includes preproduction, during which Peart works on drum arrangements for songs.
"When Ged and I write songs, we write to a basic drum pattern," Lifeson continues. "Neil starts filling his stuff in. Then we'll record just to try and experiment with different guitar or vocal arrangements. We continue to do that for a couple more weeks, then go into a studio and record everything."
Considering out-there songs like "By-Tor the Snow Dog," it's not surprising that Lee and Lifeson usually pass on some of the numbers that Peart submits. How do they break it to him? "We just don't talk about it," Lifeson says with a laugh. "We'd rather concentrate on what we know is strong and what will be on the record."
If Rush has anything in common with younger musicians, it is golf. While in Florida, Lifeson met U.S. Open winner Lee Jansen, stayed a few days at Jansen's home and got tips from Mark O'Meara. "This is the big year," says Lifeson, a 16 handicap. "I'm going to take it down to 12-13."
Oh, one more question. Who do you air guitar to? "Tool," replies Lifeson. "I'm totally, madly in love with Tool. And Eric Johnson. He has always been one of my favorite guitarists."
Rush plays Sunday (May 11) at 7:30pm at Shoreline Amphitheater, One Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View. Tickets are $35 reserved/$19.50 garden.