It seems like a fair question to ask of a band whose legendary precision could put NASA mission control to shame: Since Rush released its debut album in 1974, was there any thought given to unfurling a 41st-anniversary banner over the trio’s current commemorative tour?
“Yes. Yes there was,” singer/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee replied with a laugh. “But 40 had a nicer ring to it.”
And so Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart are belatedly marking a milestone very few bands stick around long enough to see, and acknowledging the serpentine road to that milestone in a show Lee says was designed “to give equal weight to every period of our history.”
Rush is often described in shorthand - virtuoso musicianship, stratospheric vocals, philosopher’s lyrics, sensory-overload spectacle - but a sprawling stretch of fertile ground was covered between the self-titled debut’s youthful Zeppelin homage and the novelistic universe creation of the most recent studio album, 2012’s conceptual Clockwork Angels.
There were the elaborate sci-fi parables and questionable kimonos of the 1970s; the revolutionary effect of absorbing new-wave influences into progressive rock; the dominance of cyber-rock synths; the gradual return to and refinement of power-trio dynamics. There’s a lot to celebrate.
“It does give one pause to soak in everything we’ve done over the last 40 years,” Lee said by phone last weekend just before embarking on the second leg of the tour, which brings Rush to the Bell Centre on June 21. “But I still feel like we’ve got some mojo. And even though we have no idea what the future holds for us, I remain optimistic.”
It may calm fans’ nerves to notice that Lee, 61, isn’t speaking of the 40th-anniversary outing in valedictory terms. When the itinerary was announced in January, there was an ominous warning from Rush HQ that this “will most likely be their last major tour of this magnitude.”
“I think that’s probably true,” Lee said, “and the key words there are ‘tour of this magnitude.’ Everybody in the band has sort of a different attitude on this. I say I’m optimistic - I’m not sure my bandmates and pals would state it exactly the same way.”
One-third of the way into the casually paced three-month run, it sounds like there’s more reason for cautious optimism than there would have been in early May. Lee said Lifeson and Peart’s attitudes toward future road work are “a bit in flux,” but added: “I think before the tour started, there was a decided mood of (this being) the end of our touring life. And I know how much we’ve all enjoyed it so far. There’s been no complaining and some very, very good playing.”
One would assume the latter is a given when discussing three musicians in the world’s premier league. But the statement isn’t insignificant considering the Toronto-bred trio’s ingrained humility - and more importantly, some of the stumbling blocks that impeded the go-ahead for a tour Lee says “was very much in doubt until November.”
“Alex has had numerous health issues, but the overriding one seems to be that he has arthritis,” Lee said. “He’s not sure how that’s going to affect his ability to play at the top of his game. And it is in his hands, and that’s every musician’s nightmare.”
Having known Lifeson professionally for more than four decades, and personally since junior high, Lee says he wouldn’t have been able to detect his friend’s ailment if he wasn’t aware of the situation.
“He’s playing great. But I know he’s also in pain. So it’s not so simple. He’s able to rise above it, but it’s not going away. … I think that was a reason for him wanting to tour sooner than later.”
Peart’s tendinitis was a matter of record before the tour began, as were the major tragedies and hard-won victories of his intensely guarded private life. His book Ghost Rider - essential reading for anyone battling to endure the greatest of losses - chronicles his rocky journey toward healing after the death of his daughter and wife in the late 1990s. He remarried in 2000, and Lee confirms the drummer’s home life was another factor in discussions leading up to the R40 tour.
“Neil has a young daughter, and he doesn’t feel 100 per cent comfortable leaving her so much right now. This is kind of a second kick at the can for him, having a family. And rightfully so, he takes his responsibility as a dad very seriously.”
Once the tour was green-lit, there were other responsibilities - the ones involving weeks of pre-rehearsal rehearsals, and the process of resurrecting a longtime partnership whose interplay is too complex and performance standards too exacting to snap into place on the first day back at the office.
“The first day (of group rehearsal), you’ll hear a lot of flailing,” Lee said with a laugh.
“It’s one thing to sit in your home studio and get your fingers ready; it’s another thing to build a set list that’s 2 ½, three hours long, and be able to physically belt that out and do all the (technical) choreography that’s required when you’re in the world’s busiest three-piece band.”
Without discussing specifics - “there’s a sort of magic being in the audience and not knowing what’s going to happen next” - Lee says the architecture of the R40 set list was constructed reasonably quickly, considering the depth of the repertoire and varying philosophies on how to approach a retrospective.
“My attitude was: This is an anniversary tour, so we should really celebrate our most popular songs. And in order to do that, you have to have the discussion: Well, popular by whose metric? … If you look at some of the hardcore fans and their requests, they want the more obscure, deeper tracks. So we tried to strike a balance.”
For the last decade or so, Rush has balanced retrospective shows with those in support of new studio work. Even if the touring stops, or is scaled way down, the recordings may continue. Lee didn’t hesitate when asked if he feels he has another album in him.
“Absolutely. Again, I don’t know if my partners agree, but I think they probably do.
“I can certainly see us writing together and putting a musical project together. I cannot really tell you how that would present itself in a live situation. I don’t know that there is the will from my two partners to do any kind of tour. But I wouldn’t exclude the possibility of doing a set of dates, or some one-off things.”
For now, there’s a victory lap to complete. And as long as Lee, Lifeson and Peart feel able, one presumes, the victories will continue. For a band that isn’t capable of half measures, those triumphs have included the ability to fully connect with a heterogeneous, four-decade-strong back catalogue while still evolving.
“Once you start playing it, it’s amazing how you can put yourself back into that mindset of how you felt when you wrote the song,” Lee said. “You can reignite a point of view and a good feeling about playing it, even though initially your instincts said: ‘Oh, I can’t play that song anymore - that’s too dated.’ But you can. You can go home again.”
Rush performs Sunday, June 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Bell Centre. Remaining seats are priced at $58.50. Call 514-790-2525 or order at evenko.ca.