Rush finally returned to the road this summer almost five years after tragedy sent the veteran Canadian rock trio into hibernation.
The current tour, featuring songs from "Vapor Trails," the band's first studio album since "Test for Echo" in the late '90s, opened June 28 in Hartford, Conn. It includes a show tomorrow night at The Gorge, where the 2002 concert season comes to a close this weekend.
"Opening night was pretty special for us -- and very symbolic in a lot of ways," singer and bassist Geddy Lee said in a phone interview this week.
"It had been a long time and everyone had been through a whole lot and we'd worked pretty hard to get to that point. And everyone had butterflies hitting the stage.
"But we walked out there and there were people who had come from all over the world to see us. It was pretty emotional."
Since forming in 1968, Rush has sold more than 35 million albums and built a massive fan base. So it's not surprising that so many of those fans have persevered through the progressive-rock band's long hiatus.
"They've been just amazing. There's been a really nice vibe and a very welcoming feel to all the shows. And we feed off it," Lee said.
Shortly after finishing up the band's 1997 summer tour, drummer Neil Peart received a call that his only child -- 19-year-old daughter Selena -- had been killed in a car accident. A year later, Peart's wife, Jackie (Selena's mother), died of cancer.
"It's hard to talk about it without trivializing it," Lee said. "Selena and Jackie both were part of our extended family.
"We were all on holiday at the time Selena was killed. It was fairly devastating, and we didn't know what to do with each other, so Alex (Lifeson) and I went to Neil to be of any help we could."
The group suspended its activities as a band, and Lee and guitarist Lifeson worked on solo projects while Peart took time to heal. As part of that process, Peart rode a motorcycle from Alaska to Mexico. Individually, band members wondered if the band would ever be the same.
"Each of us wondered if it would ever be possible to get over these kinds of events and to find the same spirit. Because rock music is about spirit. And when you lose your family and you're struck down like that, your spirit is gone and it's hard to capture it again," Lee said.
"There were times when I didn't really believe that we'd be able to overcome that and find the joy in playing again. But people are resilient and you find yourself wanting to get back on the horse."
Lee -- whose distinctive, high-pitched vocals add to the progressive-rock trio's unique sound -- decided to record a solo album with fellow Canadian and longtime friend Ben Mink, known for his collaborations with k.d. lang. The album project brought Lee to Seattle, where he recorded with former Soundgarden (and current Pearl Jam) drummer Matt Cameron at Seattle's Studio X.
"I had no great ambitions on my own. But I had always wanted to work with Ben. We had always threatened each other with trying to write some songs together," said Lee, whose unusual first name was the result of his Polish-born mother's thickly accented pronunciation of Gary, his given name.
Lee, Lifeson and Peart finally reunited in January 2001 to begin work on what would become "Vapor Trails."
"The initial feeling was quite sweet," Lee said. "Of course, it was emotional, but we were happy to be in each other's company again and we did much more talking than playing in the first few weeks. Up until the end, when we were getting a little pressure to get it done, we were all pretty relaxed and enjoying each other's company."
Songs began to flow naturally after a couple of months in the studio. The sessions continued for nearly a year, unusually long for Rush.
"I think we just sort of let the music evolve. In the early stages of writing, we had a lot of self-doubt and we weren't sure we could put something together that was fresh," Lee said.
"But we underestimated the chemistry and how much we all needed to get back together and rock. As the sessions progressed, it became evident that there was a real spirit to what we were writing."
The album's first song, "One Little Victory," deals with the challenges of the past few years.
"Certainly the opening track is a very symbolic song for me in terms of having survived some not-very-happy times and come back together and produce something that's spirited and contemporary. I'm pretty proud of that track."
Overall, "Vapor Trails" has a much harder edge than "Test for Echo" -- both lyrically and musically -- and it fits right in with much of today's modern rock. But the soaring virtuosity for which the band has long been known is alive and well on this 13-track collection.
"It came out of the box really strong and it's been steadily selling every week. And, of course, the longer we're on tour the more it sells," Lee said.