Rush has been honored with Junos by the record industry and the Order Of Canada by its country, but the prize they really deserve hasn't been invented yet.
Attracting a rabid following willing to accommodate musical growth and change, sticking to ideals but adapting new ideas with dignity, staying steadfastly independent in a business that endorses compromise and conformity -- they don't hand out medals for that kind of thing, but they should. And bassist-singer Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart should be inaugural members of that pantheon.
Last night, the band's marathon Test For Echo tour wrapped up at the Corel Centre with a three-hour performance before 8,500 of the faithful. And it began with a typically Rushian sense of the spectacular and the absurd.
As the houselights dimmed, the PA played Pavement's song Stereo, complete with kidding lyrical reference to Rush's singer ("What about the voice of Geddy Lee? How did it get so high? I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy?"). That led into Thus Spake Zarathustra, accompanied by rear-screen projections of an interstellar bolt melding with (I'm not kidding) a cosmic hardware nut.
And then, in an eruption of light and noise, Lee, Lifeson and Peart appeared, zipping through a breathless brace of songs, including Limelight and Stick It Out, and were greeted like conquering heroes.
Lee's voice has always been an acquired taste, but he was in superb form, showing no obvious strain from the months of touring. Lifeson's low-key side project Victor seems to have had the lingering effect of refining and honing his performance. But the real treat of any Rush concert is watching Peart, literally surrounded by a wall of percussion instruments, athletically serving up dextrous, rhythmic marvels. Rush must be the only group to attract a legion of air-drummers to every show.
Closing night giddiness had the threesome in high spirits during an expanded rendition of Closer To The Heart, with Lifeson and Lee attempting some hilariously feeble choreography. Snuggled surreally next to Lee's bass amps was a fridge covered in souvenir magnets. During intermission, the screen showed kitschy drive-in snack bar ads, and in the song Test For Echo, a satellite dish flashed lasers onto the arena roof.
Then all hell broke loose during Tom Sawyer, with crew members staging a puppet show behind Lifeson's amps, and a stage invasion by a beefy male hula dancer. During an encore race through the instrumental YYZ, the band teased the crowd with a brief hint of their outer-space epic, Cygnus X-1.
The sound and lighting were as flawless as the musicianship. Speaker stacks suspended around the hockey rink allowed the sound to careen around the room and create cool stereo-panning effects. Songs like Driven (with a Lee bass solo inserted into the mid-section), the anti-totalitarianism parable The Trees and Roll The Bones were enhanced by slick conceptual video sequences.
The performance was also assisted by a superbly-directed multi-camera video crew, which broadcast an up-close view of the trio's instrumental work onto the big screen. During Red Barchetta, the effect was particularly ... well, effective.
Peart had said in an earlier interview that there were certain songs the group can't bring themselves to play anymore, and given the selection of songs at last night's show, we'll take that to mean anything off the group's pre-1976 oeuvre. Nothing from that era made the cut.
The good news for longtime Rush fans, though, was the inclusion of their conceptual monster, 2112 -- performed in its entirety for the first time on this tour. During the staccato intro, a whole row of fanatics at the front pumped their fists skyward in perfect choreography with each eruption of noise. Critics and hipsters may scratch their heads, but is there any doubt hardcore Rush fans had been waiting a long time to hear the unabridged version of this sci-fi fable?
By post-punk standards, it's hopelessly grandiose, and let's not pine for the days of prog-rock. But in a time when dumbing down music is the cool thing to do, it's nice to know someone still likes to think big.
The band members have consistently denied rumors that this is their last tour. But if this is the end of Rush, last night's show would stand as a stellar swansong.