Arena Rock With A Worldview And All The Flash Trimmings

By Jon Pareles, New York Times, September 19, 2007

The rock band at Madison Square Garden on Monday night was a trio that got together in the 1970s and has been selling out arena dates on a world tour this year. It has a bass-playing, reedy-voiced lead singer, a briskly virtuosic drummer and a guitarist who spills echoey chords over their riffs. Its songs contemplate the state of the world.

No, it wasn't the Police - it was Rush, the stalwart Canadian band that didn't have to reunite. Without a string of pop hits or much that's even remotely glamorous, Rush has maintained one of rock's biggest cult followings.

Rush has improbable ingredients for popularity. The music is grounded in progressive rock, with odd-meter riffs from Geddy Lee on bass and Neil Peart on drums below the guitarist Alex Lifeson's power chords and pealing arpeggios. Once scorned, progressive rock has started a comeback, notably with the Mars Volta, whose grotesque imagery and manic attack can make elders like Rush sound didactic.

Mr. Lee uses his high, cutting voice to sing philosophical lyrics, calling for heroic honesty in a corrupt and shallow world: cultish conviction to defy scoffers. In a 20-year-old song, "Mission," he sang, "a spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission." Over the years Mr. Peart, the band's lyricist, has grown far less optimistic. Songs from Rush's vigorous current album, Snakes & Arrows (Atlantic) denounced fundamentalism ("The Way the Wind Blows") and bemoaned disparities of wealth and fate: "Such a lot of pain on this earth," he sang in "The Larger Bowl."

In two hours of music Rush touched on the grandiosity of Genesis, on garage psychedelia and even, for a few moments in "Digital Man," the reggae backbeat of the Police. Rush improves as its music grows more elaborate. The trio plays with unrelenting muscle, pounding out the intricacies of its songs, but rarely letting them breathe. Its shorter tunes can get stuck in a continuous churn, but multipart extravaganzas like "Natural Science" hurtled through their contrasts.

The concert was arena rock with all the trimmings. Naturally, the set opened with "Limelight," a song with misgivings about stardom. Later, green lasers fanned out over the band, while overhead lighting rigs moved like U.F.O.'s. Flash pots flamed up in one song, fireworks showered in another. "Tom Sawyer" had a video lead-in with characters from "South Park." And Mr. Peart took a drum solo - that arena-rock essential - on a revolving platform, though it segued into a digital-era fantasia of big-band samples.

Lest anyone think Rush lacks a sense of humor - of a sort - the refrigerator-sized cabinets behind Mr. Lee weren't amplifiers for his bass. They were glass-fronted rotisserie ovens filled with rotating chickens, and every so often a man in a toque came out to baste them. What it meant was something for die-hard Rush fans to ponder.