Rush broadens fan base
Rush fans love their band. Music critics, not as much. Despite a career that began in 1968, Rush isn't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fans are peeved, as evidenced by Internet petitions created to get the band inducted. Guitarist Alex Lifeson appreciates the efforts, but isn't upset about the perceived snub.
"It doesn't matter at all," Lifeson says. "If we were inducted it would mean we'd probably have to go up there (to Cleveland) and play there."
Since releasing its self-titled debut album in 1974, the Canadian power trio has had a line of gold and platinum records. The band, which plays Monday at Riverbend Music Center, wrote the soundtrack to many lives with its 1976 release, "2112," a concept album based on the writings of Ayn Rand.
That album, featuring Geddy Lee's high-pitched vocals, drummer and songwriter Neil Peart's thematically woven songs and Lifeson's intricate guitar-playing, gave Rush a lifetime license to make music the way it wanted.
"That album bought us our independence," Lifeson says. "We've never put much onus on writing a hit single. ... We developed a really strong and loyal fan base. In some ways, we're a really successful cult band. ... But it's gratifying to still be at it and playing with that same attitude."
Rush continued building its audience with its fusion of hard rock and progressive sounds with "A Farewell to Kings" in 1977, "Hemispheres" in 1978, "Permanent Waves" in 1980 and "Moving Pictures" in 1981, which has been called one of the greatest hard rock albums of all time by some critics.
Rush became one of the hardest-working tour bands on the circuit and packed venues with mostly male fans.
"Our concerts back then were about 99.9 percent guys," Lifeson says. "They all were into playing air guitar and air drumming. We were all about the playing and the musicianship. There was no real female appeal. None of us are particularly cute. The music we played was more male-testosterone music, kind of like Led Zeppelin. Those were our roots back then."
With its 2007 release of "Snakes and Arrows," Lifeson says the band is seeing a much more gender-diverse crowd.
From the late 1980s through the 1990s, Rush continued to make music, but added few new fans. Band members got older. Personal tragedies struck. But they persevered.
"We all come from very middle-class backgrounds," Lifeson says. "We've known each other most of our lives. We've always been very rooted with a good work ethic and upbringing.
"We've had our crazy times, don't get me wrong. But we've always taken our music seriously. We were never really a wild band. We never wanted anything to get in the way of our music."
Now, an entire generation of new fans are coming to shows. Lifeson says he noticed a young girl, maybe 9 or 10, at a concert with her mom recently.
"She sang every word to every song," he says. "I was blown away. I thought, 'What sort of impact have we had that she would learn all the words to all of our songs?' It was very special."
Originally published in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati, OH on 06.30.08.
Never mind that Rush writes songs about futuristic dystopias and arboreal uprisings. The Canadian trio knows it's pretentious but undercuts that with a little self-directed humor.
On Saturday, Rush's nearly three-hour concert at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater was dotted with comical bits on the video board, starring the band as well as SCTV's "Great White North" hosts Bob and Doug McKenzie, the "South Park" gang, and even actor Jerry Stiller - in drag, no less.
Even wackier, bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee's banks of amplifiers were replaced with large cases full of rotisserie chicken. No mention was made of the visual gag, but occasionally a roadie would break out a basting brush and go to work.
Meanwhile, the band - Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart - worked hard as well. Rush offered a mix of old favorites and deep album cuts, plus the lion's share of its most recent album of new material, "Snakes & Arrows."
If the show sounded familiar, however, that's because it was. Only four songs differed from the set Rush played at the same venue last summer. And that show was almost identical to the "Snakes & Arrows Live" CD issued by the band earlier this year. Fans could have spun the disc at home and heard essentially the same show without booking a baby sitter.
But there didn't seem to be much grumbling. Most audience members stood throughout the show, pumping their fists, playing air guitar and marveling at the band's musical prowess.
Attention often gets lavished on Lee's still astonishing vocal range and Peart's dexterous drumming, which sometimes shortchanges Lifeson's six-string skills. But on Saturday, he showed he can still shred with the best of them, stretching out on the instrumental "The Main Monkey Business," accenting the metallic reggae of "Digital Man" and playing with grace and economy on one of the set's new additions, "Ghost of a Chance."
For their part, Lee hit some stratospheric notes on "Freewill" and Peart contributed a jaw-dropping drum solo that, flying in the face of conventional wisdom, wasn't a signal for a beer or bathroom break.
Other highlights included the hits "Tom Sawyer" and "The Spirit of Radio" as well as the rest of the songs that weren't part of last year's show: "Red Barchetta," "The Trees" and "Overture/The Temples of Syrinx" from "2112."
Those songs were enough to make one wonder how much more satisfying an already fine show could have been with maybe a few less yuks and a little more consideration for the band's hard-core constituency.
Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis, MO on 06.30.08.
Rush @ Red Rocks Amphitheatre
Looking around at the crowd at Red Rocks Wednesday night, it was surprising to see so many young faces eager to hear Rush play. The audience ran the gamut from pre-teens to people in their retirement years. That begs the question, "Is Rush ageless?"
For 34 years now, the Canadian power trio has been doing their own thing, ignoring critics, spurning radio hits, and building a devoted fan base that rivals that of bands like the Grateful Dead and Pearl Jam. Rush seems to tour like clockwork every three years, and whether they have a new album out or not, the shows will sell out.
Rush was the first concert I ever went to, when I saw them in 1983 at Radio City Music Hall. Very little has changed for the band since then. Their faces have some age lines, and guitarist Alex Lifeson is a little heavier, but barring that, it was like stepping into a time warp.
Wednesday's show was a rescheduled date from the June 5 show canceled due to inclement weather. Talking to a fan from Arizona who had flown up for that date and again last night, he wondered if the show was jinxed, as thunderstorms threatened to unleash on the crowd. However, nothing more than mild sprinkles hit during the course of the evening, as the worst of the weather stayed to the south, treating the fans to a spectacular lightning show to accompany the music.
How to describe a Rush concert though? At one end of the hard rock spectrum you have Led Zeppelin, a band that, in concert, uses its tunes as a launching pad for dizzying improvisational exploration that would make Jerry Garcia proud. On the other hand you have Rush, a band that approaches its tunes in concert with symphonic precision, almost never deviating from the original recordings. Lifeson is on record as saying that when he goes to a concert, he is disappointed when the band doesn't sound like they do on the record. It's no surprise then, that if you have heard Rush's albums, you know how Alex plays his solos in concert, offering note-for-note accurate reprisals.
The band's concert precision even applies to when they take the stage, which was at precisely 8 p.m., as promised. The stage was decorated with three rotisserie ovens which were filled with chickens cooking. Periodically over the course of the night, a chef would walk onstage and baste the birds with a sly smile.
Opening with a demented video about Alex and drummer Neal Peart having a bad dream, followed by bassist Geddy Lee's bad dream sequence, the band launched into "Limelight," from the ultra-classic 1981 album "Moving Pictures."
Though he will turn 55 next month, Lee is still capable of hitting the high notes, as he proved at the start of "Mission," from "Hold Your Fire." While most older bands drop their songs a key or two so the singer can hold the notes, Lee still sings the songs for the most part in their original key. Lifeson's solo during "Mission" was filled with ear-piercing harmonics.
With so much material to draw on, Rush, unlike nostalgia acts, is determined to keep it fresh. This tour is in support of the band's last CD, "Snakes and Arrows," and they played a lot of material from it. In the first set, "The Main Monkey Business," a dazzling instrumental, was followed by "The Larger Bowl," complete with a video introduction by Bob and Doug McKenzie. The latter included a heavy-handed video accompaniment.
While I've always appreciated the political themes in a lot of Peart's lyrics, having a video that was supposed to bolster lyrics like "Some are blessed and some are cursed, the golden one or scarred from birth, while others only see the worst, such a lot of pain on the earth," surprisingly detracted from them instead. It's better to let your own mind create the associations, as it leads to a more personal connection.
Because the band plays virtual note-for-note renditions of their songs, the occasional deviation seems jarring, as during "Red Barchetta," when they changed the rhythm a little during the bridge, creating an interesting effect. The group closed their first set with a hard-driving version of "Dreamline."
Set two opened again with a deranged video sequence with all three band members, titled "What's that Smell?" While set one featured an interesting array of older material, in set two the band challenged the audience right from the start, opening with five songs from "Snakes and Arrows."
Some of the newer material, like "Workin' them Angels," sparkled, but some of it seemed like the band was trying to hard to be creative, as on "Sprindrift," a song that dragged too much. While it as all well and good to promote the new material, by the fifth song, "The Way the Wind Blows," you could see the band was losing the audience a little.
From there however, they delved back into some classics, starting with their ode to suburban teen alienation, "Subdivisions." Hearing a song like this live is a study in Rush's instrumental virtuosity, as Lee seamlessly switches between hard-driving bass lines and synthesizer playing, while Lifeson and Peart alternated between solid rhythm playing a deft leads.
If I have one criticism of Rush in concert, it is the lack of dynamics in their playing. Lifeson compresses his guitar to get a great crunchy tone, but even the "quiet" parts of songs are played at the same volume as the guitar solos, and sometimes Peart's textured drumming was lost in the mix.
For instance, "Natural Science," one of my favorite Rush songs, starts with a quiet acoustic part, which Lifeson actually plays on his electric, using an acoustic piezo pickup to simulate an acoustic tone. However, there was virtually no swing in volume level between that part and the hard rock of the first two verses. Adding more dynamics would give more punch to the hard rock parts of the songs.
Having said that, hearing the dazzling instrumental parts of "Natural Science," followed by the ominous "Witch Hunt," in which Peart writes brilliantly about how leaders exploit fear of the unknown to maintain power, was the highlight of the night.
After playing a strong version of the Grammy-nominated "Malignant Narcisism," complete with an extended drum solo from Peart, Rush ended the second set with two longtime concert staples, "2112? and "Tom Sawyer," the latter complete with a video introduction from the "South Park" cartoon characters playing in "Lil' Rush" and singing the wrong lyrics.
The band came back for a three song encore that included the rarely played "A Passage to Bangkok," during which Lifeson made one of his few flubs of the night on a guitar part, and the rocking instrumental "YYZ." Rush surely won over any younger fans last night, and the die-hard older ones were more than satisfied.
Originally published in the Denver Post, Denver, CO on 06.29.08.
Rush proves everything people say about it
Milwaukee Summerfest crowd doesn't take well to newer material
Two things were definitively proved during Rush's show Friday night at the Marcus Amphitheater.
One, it is not nearly so bad a band as its detractors would swear in affidavits. Two, it is not nearly so awe-inspiring a band as its fanatics would claim in heated tavern conversations.
Such was true when drummer Neil Peart joined the Canadian trio in 1974, cementing the lineup that still exists today; such was true during its late-'70s and early-'80s critical and commercial heyday; such is true now in its 21st-century, post-hiatus era.
The musicianship wasn't questionable. Peart did a drum solo that was about as exciting as a drum solo can get, bassist Geddy Lee achieved more with four strings than many of those he's influenced do with five or six, and guitarist Alex Lifeson was agilely pretty on acoustic and efficiently noisy on electric.
Efficiency was also a strong part of the trio's interplay. While Rush incorporates prog-rock and art-rock elements, and while it can jam heavily, it's too focused and rigorous to be an actual jam band.
Most of the rigor lies in the messages that, courtesy largely of Peart, come with Rush songs. "Limelight" opened the show with an intelligently dubious attitude toward stardom, while the quick stops and starts on the descending refrain of "Freewill" emphasized a thoroughgoing embrace of the idea that humans control their own destinies.
Fans weren't wildly enthusiastic about selections from Rush's latest album, last year's "Snakes & Arrows," but at least one of them, "The Way the Wind Blows," was as maturely spiritual and musically serene a song as this band has ever put together. Those qualities got an assist from how time has given depth to Lee's quacking, squawking and high-pitched voice.
Proper maturity is as welcome in rock 'n' roll as it is rare, particularly when the musicians playing it are clearly well into middle age. Yet the performance itself could have benefited from more youthful energy.
Because for a band that has released so many live albums ("Snakes & Arrows" got its own live-disc treatment this year), Rush isn't particularly inventive onstage.
The longstanding use of video screens, films and other visual elements, including KISS-style fireworks and Pink Floydian lasers, remains seemingly designed to dazzle the eye for what the ear is missing, and humor attempts were awkward.
Rush came across as a first-rate rock band of its kind, better than its prog peers and smarter than successors such as Coheed and Cambria.
It also came across as less active and memorable than truly great and legendary rock bands of any kind.
Originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee, WI on 06.28.08.
Rush delivers a knockout show at Summerfest
There was no scantily-clad Annie Leibovitz photo shoot hubbub, nobody got pulled on stage for beating up a woman and not a single person wondered if the lead singer had officially changed his name back to "Puff Geddy" from "P Giddy".
All we had was music.
Three hours of rock from a group who has managed to last 34 years and can still rock out with their hen out (more on that later). Rush doesn't just endure; they thrive, wow, amaze, and time after time show why the term "power trio" should have been coined just for them.
Touring in support of their first new album in 6 years, "Snakes and Arrows," Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson, and Geddy Lee drifted back to an older style of Rush. The music was little more edgy, a little harder. Lee's voice was in fantastic form, holding out song after song and allowing him to sing virtually the entire show in the same key as he originally recorded the pieces. I had never heard them perform "Limelight", the opening song, without dropping an octave for the vocals. It was a strong showing for a guy just days shy of his 55th birthday.
From the new album we were shown "The Main Monkey Business," "The Larger Bowl," "Far Cry," "Workin' Them Angels," "Armor and Sword," "Spondrift," "The Way The Wind Blows," and "Hope." It is impressive to witness a classic rock band perform new material without being booed off the stage ("Dude, play "Freebird!").
With more than three decades of material from which to draw, the band also pulled out more rare songs like "Entre Nous," "Natural Science," and "Dreamline." Never ones to short-change the crowd, Rush rounded out the almost 30-song set list with such perennial favorites as "Tom Sawyer," (introduced by "South Park" stars Stan, Kyle, and Cartman, no less), "Free Will," and "YYZ."
I sat next to a man who was seeing Rush for the first time. Several times, he referred to it as a "bucket list" item he could now cross off. He had missed them playing in the early 70's at a high school in Wausau. Nobody knew who they were. Several times during the show, I looked over at him and saw the happiest face. All he could talk about during the first intermission I have ever seen the band take was how the next time Rush came to town he would have to bring his wife.
We both puzzled over the poultry theme running throughout the show. Onstage were three tall rotisserie ovens labeled "Henhouse," each containing several dozen fake chickens, which slowly turned the entire time.
Many of the screen animations featured chickens and chicken-themed skits, too. It was far less distracting than previous shows, which had, among other things, vending machines and washer/dryer pairs. It still left us wondering and occasionally realizing that instead of paying attention to the music we had been staring at prop fowl.
That is all part of Rush. It might help explain why they are one of the only successful and relevant bands from the early 70's who can sell out an arena yet fly under the radar when they are not touring.
As I was walking out, another fan caught a tech's attention when we walked past the soundboard. He said, "Awesome show, man! Awesome sound!" The tech replied, "I know! That kicked ASS!" And that very well sums up the evening...Rush delivered the absolute best show I have seen perform.
Originally published on OnMilwaukee.com, Milwaukee, WI on 06.28.08.
Rush more interested with future than past
Most bands that have endured for three or more decades feel compelled to essentially play a greatest-hits set in their concerts. Be it Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard or Journey, these groups will sprinkle in perhaps three or four new songs into a live set at best.
Rush is the prime exception to that rule, and at no time has that been more apparent than on the group's tour in support of its 2007 studio CD, "Snakes & Arrows."
On the tour, which resumed last month, the band has been playing nine of the 11 songs from "Snakes & Arrows." In a recent phone interview, guitarist Alex Lifeson says two factors allow Rush to showcase so much of the new material live -- the band's satisfaction with "Snakes & Arrows" and the length of the band's set.
"First of all, we felt so strongly about it," Lifeson says of "Snakes & Arrows." "We were very happy with the results of the record. ... In the past, we probably would have done three or four, maybe five, from a new album. But this one, we just couldn't, we wanted to play the whole thing. For us to settle at nine, I thought, was pretty generous. And in doing over three hours, it allows us to get a chunk of the new material in, as well as revisiting older stuff that are maybe fan favorites."
Just as importantly, Lifeson says many Rush fans seem to mirror the band in its desire to live in the present and push forward musically.
"I want to think that Rush fans want to hear that anyway.vThey want to hear the new stuff," he says. "Sure, 'Tom Sawyer' or 'Spirit of the Radio' are great, but they want to see where the band's going and how we can replicate what we do in the studio, still."
Rush, in fact, is proud enough of "Snakes & Arrows" and the shows the band performed last year on the first half of the tour to have recently released a two-CD set culled from two shows in Rotterdam in the Netherlands called "Snakes & Arrows Live." A DVD shot during those same concerts will be released later this year.
Despite the fact that fans will be able to own the "Snakes & Arrows" CD right as this year's tour starts, Lifeson says the band isn't making major changes to the live set.
"We'll change up the show a little bit," he says. "We've changed some video stuff that we did at intermission when we come back onstage. We're trading out a few songs for a few others -- I think four songs."
The members of Rush -- Lifeson, singer/bassist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart -- have good reason to be proud of the "Snakes & Arrows" studio CD. It's one of the band's best efforts, and combines fairly concise rockers like "Far Cry" and "Armor and Sword," which feature strong melodies and sharp guitar riffs, with longer, more adventurous tracks such as "Spindrift" and "The Main Monkey Business."
"Snakes & Arrows" provided a heartening high point for a band that had endured its share of heartache and uncertainty in recent years.
Formed in 1974 in Toronto, the band's future was thrown into question when, in 1997, Peart's 19-year-old daughter, Selena, was killed in a one-car accident near Brighton, Ontario. About a year later, his wife, Jackie, succumbed to cancer.
The band put everything on hold, and Peart (who remarried in 2000) hadn't even picked up his drumsticks for nearly four years when, in fall 2000, the group decided to return to the studio and try to resume its career. There was no guarantee that the group would succeed.
"It was the first record back after that four years off," Lifeson said. "We weren't sure how Neil was going to do. He hadn't been playing for a while. We had sort of been pursuing other things -- when I say we, I mean Geddy and myself. So there were a lot of things up in the air."
The band, though, found a groove and, in 2002, returned with the CD "Vapor Trails." But with "Snakes & Arrows," Lifeson feels the group hit a new peak.
He credited producer Nick Raskulinecz with helping the group to stay in touch with its musical strengths.
"Nick, you know, made us realize that sometimes we try to get too far away from what we do for the feat of repeating ourselves," Lifeson says, citing the group's active rhythm section and vocal harmonies as two signatures that Raskulinecz sought to keep in check. "He pointed out to us that we have to be careful about the sorts of things we try to run away from. He said there are things about Rush that are so Rush-ian, you know, and you have to continue to incorporate them. They're what makes you special.
"It sort of opened our eyes to what our character is as a band. And that made things a lot more exciting."
Originally published in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Pittsburgh, PA on 06.26.08.
Rush delivers, but we've seen it before
Rush fans are a funny bunch. More than a quarter century after the rock trio peaked, its admirers remain staunchly loyal. They still listen to "2112" and "Moving Pictures," though most likely alone and in private, for fear of enduring ridicule from those who just don't get it. And when the band comes to town, they show up in force.
Thousands of them descended upon the Comcast Center Sunday night, despite the fact that the three-hour concert competed with Game 5 of the Celtics-Lakers series. And they loved every minute of it, thrusting skyward their hands with index finger and pinky raised, displaying the universal sign for "I approve of that power chord."
It's a shame the band didn't reciprocate the love.
The music itself was fine, even if the mix was a bit muddied; rock bands will trade clarity for volume every time. Newer songs like "Far Cry" and older ones like "Digital Man" and "Spirit of Radio" sounded pretty much like they do on the records. Live replication is, unfortunately, what crowds expect from rock concerts these days.
But Rush fans are a limited number in 2008. Few in Sunday's crowd appeared to be younger than 30, unless they were children dragged there by their parents. One could safely guess that most of those who bought tickets also saw the band last year in Mansfield. So why wouldn't the band mix things up a bit? The set list was essentially unchanged from a year ago, as were the video sequences and other visuals, including the three cases of rotisserie chicken that appeared to cook onstage for no apparent reason. Why not give the people more for their hard-earned money? OK, yes, the band technically is still on its "Snakes & Arrows" tour, but it owes its fans more than simply going through the motions a second time around.
Rush's musicianship can hardly be criticized. Geddy Lee was a dynamo on the bass, and his vocals were in fine form, having lost little of their edge after all these years. Guitarist Alex Lifeson turned in some blazing solos that he has played from memory more times than he can count. Drummer Neil Peart - always the crowd favorite - smacked his huge kit around with aplomb while betraying precisely zero emotion. The trio's chemistry during an instrumental portion of 1980's "Free Will" was so infectious that it prompted a fellow in front of me to raise both of his cups of beer above his head and shout "woo hoo!" not once, not twice, but six times.
See, these fans, they're just so appreciative, so loving. So how about something new and different from Lee, Lifeson, and Peart on their next swing through town? When they announced this year's tour and said there would be some surprises, they really meant it. Surprise! It's the same show as last year!
Originally published in The Boston Globe, Boston, MA on 06.17.08.
During Rush hour, there?s no slowdown
If you need one moment to sum up Rush, consider "Far Cry," the new song that opened the Canadian progressive-rock veterans' second set Sunday night. On CD it's a textured, melodic rocker with tricky rhythmic shifts and thoughtful lyrics about modern-world dislocation. But live, its midsection found guitarist Alex Lifeson slinging power chords, bassist Geddy Lee duck-hopping across the stage, and fireworks going off at the climax. Half cerebral kicks, half arena-sized cheap thrills - that's Rush in a nutshell.
Sunday's concert was partly a visit to familiar territory: It's officially a continuation of last summer's tour, so the set list and staging were essentially the same (two filmed song intros again from Bob and Doug MacKenzie and the "South Park" kids). As always, the show was epic in length (nearly three hours). And a Rush audience is still at least 70 percent male, many of them expert air-drummers: Aping Neil Peart's tom-tom fills on "Tom Sawyer" has become a communal ritual.
Still, it was a slightly different kind of Rush tour, tilted to the band's more cerebral side. The current "Snakes & Arrows" is one of Rush's most nuanced albums, with moody layers of melody and textured arrangements, including Lifeson's first-ever mandolin solo. While most veteran bands avoid playing new material, Rush did nine songs from the album, including five in a row to start the second set. And they dug up older songs (such as buried album tracks "Between the Wheels" and "Witch Hunt") that suited the new material's direction.
"Snakes & Arrows" is a strong disc, but it's one that takes a few listens to fully get, which is why an encore tour made sense. The band seemed looser and more comfortable with the new songs this time around. Stone-faced drummer Peart seemed especially limber compared to last summer's show. And Rush gave the set list a couple of tweaks, swapping some of last year's deeper tracks for more obvious crowd pleasers ("Circumstances" and "Entre Nous" are out; "Red Barchetta" and "2112 Overture" are in). That made the show less geek-friendly, but it made for a more balanced set. It also allowed for a rousing end-of-show blowout, with the "2112" section played between dependable barnstormers "The Spirit of Radio" and "Tom Sawyer."
Variations aside it was still Rush, with the usual complexity and oddball humor. In a neat visual pun, there was a chicken rotisserie onstage where you'd expect to see a wall of amps. There aren't a whole lot of veteran arena bands who work this hard or deliver as much.
Originally published in the Boston Herald, Boston, MA on 06.17.08.
Rush gives encore worth celebrating
When Rush played the Bell Centre in September, they had the element of surprise on their side. The audacious set list featured a treasure chest of rarely performed songs, and a whopping nine tracks from last year's Snakes and Arrows - a vote of support for the nearly 35-year-old trio's current work that few of their contemporaries would have the courage to match.
This being Rush - the most meticulous and prepared of groups - the script was largely the same when they returned to the Bell Centre Thursday night (the first time in over 20 years that they've played Montreal twice in support of an album). But if the element of surprise had gone, there were still the old strengths that never abandon this band: a massive repertoire that remains vibrant rather than dusty, a nutbar sense of humour, and three-way virtuosity that makes it impossible to fall short of lofty performance standards.
Limelight was as visceral an opener as it was in September, showcasing a grittiness that has increasingly infiltrated Rush in recent years, particularly in regard to Alex Lifeson's fretwork. The guitarist is still capable of finger-frying solos that stretch the outer limits of a song - his hands were clearly warmed up by the time Mission and Freewill appeared early in the set - but the forbidding drone of Subdivisions has rarely been darker than it was Thursday, and Between the Wheels keeps getting more caustic.
There were a few additions to the set list from the last leg of the tour, although the lyrical Ghost of a Chance was the only genuine surprise among them. Still, it's always a pleasure to welcome back Red Barchetta - as descriptive a song-story as many literary novellas - and while The Trees wasn't as taut as it could have been, the two opening chapters of the epic 2112 did their usual crowd-pleasing job late in the evening.
Otherwise, if you were there in September, you knew what to expect. This included one of the most daring moves Rush has ever made in concert: a solid block of five songs from Snakes and Arrows after intermission. The flatly produced album may not be a highlight of their catalogue, but Armor and Sword, Spindrift and especially a vital Far Cry were edgier and more alive on stage, and merited the pride of place they received.
Very little remains unsaid about Neil Peart's feats of drum magic or Geddy Lee's bass and vocal dexterity, although the latter deserves special mention for Malignant Narcissism's insane rubber groove and a remarkably undiminished range. He nailed Freewill's climactic sky-punching cry, and while the castrato heights of The Temples of Syrinx were scaled back long ago by necessity, its futuristic angst wasn't compromised. As for Peart's mandatory death-defying solo, a drummer friend said it best: "I don't play that instrument."
True to the trend of the last few tours, the video accompaniments were more hysterically surreal than ever. The post-intermission clip What's That Smell? in particular will be hard to top, featuring Lee as Scotsman Harry Satchel (who ever said this band was pretentious?) and an inexplicable cameo from Seinfeld's Jerry Stiller in drag. It was loaded with in-jokes for diehards, and continued the tour's poultry-related running gag. (The reassuring familiarity of The Spirit of Radio was enjoyably broken when a chicken-basting chef arrived on stage to tend to the phony roasting cases behind Lee.)
Some repeat customers among the 9,170 in attendance may have grumbled about the similarity to the last show. Those repeat customers should be grateful for what we got: a shockingly swift return visit, nearly three hours of hits and classic album cuts, and a sound-and-vision spectacle almost unparalleled in arena rock.
Most importantly, we got a band that certainly has confidence in its present, and appears to be optimistic about where it goes from here. The members of Rush haven't always spoken enthusiastically of road life, and their future together hasn't always been assured. But with no brand new album to promote, and hence no pressing necessity to tour, they're apparently out there for the love of the job. For those who have followed Rush for years, if not decades, that's reason to celebrate.
You want another reason? Hearing A Passage to Bangkok in the encore was once again totally bitchin'.
Originally published in the Montreal Gazette, Montreal, QC on 06.14.08.
Rush Rocks In Repeat Visit To Metro Area
Six days later, what could be more perfect than one of Canada's most storied rock bands playing in the home of the Stanley Cup champions.
"This is Hockeytown, right? Somebody told me that," Geddy Lee of Rush said to an exuberant crowd Tuesday night (June 10) at Joe Louis Arena near the start of the trio's second metro area show in 10 months -- and first in two decades in downtown Detroit.
For two hours and 45 minutes, however, it was decidedly Rushtown.
That Tuesday's 27-song set differed only slightly from the show the group played last August at the DTE Energy Music Theatre didn't really matter to the nearly 9,000 fans, the vast majority of whom stood from Alex Lifeson's opening guitar riffs on "Limelight" through the crashing end of the Grammy Award-winning instrumental "YYZ." There's good reason for that, too; Rush's brand of flashy instrumental chops, laid over intricate, multi-section opuses, never gets old, and has, in fact, only gotten better since the group returned, re-energized, from a five-year hiatus in 2002.
On Tuesday the trio was as exciting as ever as it powered through radio hits such as "Freewill," "Subdivisions" and "The Spirit of Radio," as well as fan-favorite "deep cuts" like "Digital Man," "Mission," "Between the Wheels," "Dreamline," "Natural Science" and "A Passage to Bangkok." It was visually arresting as well, thanks to three large video screens at the back of the stage, a moving light rig and carefully deployed lasers and pyrotechnics.
And there were moments of levity to balance the serious displays of musical skill. Some gleefully silly videos introduced each half of the show, while Canada's McKenzie Brothers, aka comedians Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, appeared on screen to introduce "The Larger Bowl." And "Tom Sawyer" was preceded by a clip from "South Park" in which the kids struggle to play the songs correctly. At one point Lee introduced "the newest member of Rush" -- a toy model of drummer Neal Peart, which spun on a rotating stool beside Lee's keyboards.
The four fresh numbers certainly made their mark in the show as well. "Ghost of a Chance" was the rarity, hailing form the 1991 "Roll the Bones" album, while "Red Barchetta," "The Trees" and the "2112 Overture/The Temples of Syrinx" were welcome returnees from the early stages of Rush's 34-year career.
As the group left the stage before Tuesday's encore, Lee saluted the Joe Louis crowd as "awesome" -- which it certainly was. But the same adjective could absolutely be applied to Rush, too.
Originally published in Go And Do Michigan, Pontiac, MI on 06.11.08.
Rush rocks out at the United Center
After seeing Rush for the fifth time in seven years, I'm still stuck with a question. Well, besides why the band is not ensrhined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I again wonder how in the world do three guys produce so much music?
Once again, the hard-rockin' trio from Canada delivered the goods in a big way Monday night during the band's lively concert at the United Center. The West Side has not rocked this hard in a long time.
From start to finish of a 28-song, three-hour concert, Rush dazzled the near-capacity crowd with their impressive musical skills. Lead guitarist Alex Lifeson, drummer Neil Peart and bassist/keyboardist/singer Geddy Lee continue to defy Father Time. There's no slowing down these guys. They looked more energetic than the first time I saw them way back in 1980 at the now-defunct International Amphitheater.
The band played an eclectic bunch of songs, jumping between old favorites to songs from the 2007 CD "Snakes & Arrows." Rush fans stay in their seats for the new songs, and were justly rewarded with "Workin' Them Angels," a soaring Lifeson solo on the haunting "Armor and Sword," and the politically-flavored "The Way the Wind Blows."
The new songs were well-received, but old favorites took the spotlight.
Not many bands open with one of their biggest hits, but Rush dusted off "Limelight," just as it did last summer in Tinley Park, to start the show. At the first notes, the crowd jumped to its feet with a roar. The same held true for "Ghost of a Chance" with its trippy video, and "Freewill" with the band bathed in pink spotlights.
Speaking of light shows, I thought Genesis had the best ever. They may have to share that honor with Rush, which used three huge video screens, a rainbow of colors, strobe lights, lasers and even a few fiery explosions to augment their powerful music.
One of the night's best songs was "Subdivisions" with lyrics about social divisions that are chillingly relevant in today's world where one must "conform or be cast out." The band delivered a scorching take that rocked heavier than the recorded version.
The under-rated Lifeson was in fine form with soaring solos and gritty riffs.
The chatty Lee, who thought the crowd "looked marvelous" and joked about his hair circa the '80s, effortlessly switched from bass guitar to keyboards while he sang lead vocals.
They should leave the humor to the experts like a video by the McKenzie Brothers and one from "South Park."
Once again, dozens of chickens were spinning on rotisseries on stage. Why? I have no idea other than a post-show dinner for the roadies.
Lee's voice, grating to some, is lower and more pleasing than the early days. Yes, he still hit the "salesmen" line on that crowd-pleaser "The Spirit of Radio," perhaps the band's most popular song, but it may have been with help from the sound board. But the band an over-played song sound new with rough, ragged edges.
Peart, the reigning Drum God, demonstrated why with steady support all night. While his five-minute solo on three drum sets did impress, the act is getting old. He hasn't changed it much since 2002.
Highlights included "Red Barchetta" with Lee attacking his bass like a lead guitar; a laser-rich "Dreamline;" classic rock radio staples "Overture" and "The Temples of Syrinx" from "2112," the 1976 album that put the band on the map; and, of course, "Tom Sawyer" which nearly blew the doors off the United Center. I felt the bass churning through my body.
A three-song encore included the instrumental "YYZ," and "One Little Victory" from the band's 2002 CD "Vapor Trails."
Chalk up another little victory for Rush. Now about that Hall of Fame...
Originally published in The Southtown Star, Tinley Park, IL on 06.10.08.
Rush survive 40 years on rock's very edge
'Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone'
"When we started out, we were just kids playing the kind of music that we liked," says bassist/singer Geddy Lee. "It was kind of progressive rock, it was kind of heavy metal, but it didn't really fit into any easy description, and by virtue of that it was not of the taste du jour for most mainstream rock periodicals, and I think that's what made us outsiders. We were not groovy-looking, we were not the pop taste of the moment. We were suburban kids made good."
No fucking kidding! Rush, who play the Comcast Center (what used to be the Tweeter Center, and before that Great Woods) on Sunday, are one of rock's most quietly enduring success stories: 40 years later, the Canadian trio's rabid fan base and enduring legacy continue to frustrate those who'd like to pretend that '70s prog never existed. (And who but Rush would do something like follow up last year's Snakes & Arrows with this year's Snakes & Arrows Live?) Of course, Geddy thinks that the whole "prog is a four-letter word" stigma is all smoke and mirrors. "Look at a band like Radiohead: they are a big-themed band, and they're kind of the leader in the current prog-rock parade, in my opinion. They are probably loved by a lot of people who don't like 'prog rock,' because they have an image that makes them acceptable, a grooviness that supersedes their music. And I think that's part and parcel with acceptance of certain bands: if they have a groovy buzz, then it almost makes what they are doing musically acceptable by association. I think it's a lot about a time and a place, more than the actual music that they're playing."
This assessment makes sense from a member of a band who, with their virtuoso chops, raised the bar stultifyingly high in terms of actual music being played. "We're just concerned with playing well - even after 400 years of touring, we still discuss, you know, how we sucked last night, or how can we make that one song better, or with that song that we've played for 35 years, how the chorus could be played better. In some ways we're overly focused on playing well, it's the part that makes us feel best about what we do."
Rush - Lee, drummer Neal Peart, and guitarist Alex Lifeson - are an oddity in a rock biz founded on oddities. Never having fit into any formal categorizations, even among hard-rock and progressive-rock bands, they forged ahead long enough to have created their own niche. Part of that niche was addressing their surroundings honestly - while the rest of the '70s rock parade was coming to your town and partying down, Rush were penning meditative masterpieces about the suburban condition, like 1982's "Subdivisions."
"That song, to me, described what me and my friends could relate to," says Lee. "Growing up in the suburbs, feeling this disconnect with urban life - and I guess it's because so much of North American life was constructed that way, during the period we were growing up and afterward. As we toured around, especially in America, we saw how life kind of ran away from the downtown areas into the suburbs, so I imagine the disconnect was something that rang true with a lot of people."
The thematic arc of their music is not unlike the painful transition from adolescence to adulthood. In the beginning, there is pure aggression; then there's the world of fantasy and illusion; then, eventually, the real world and its issues start to break down the wall of fantasy. Next thing you know, you're an adult. "You don't feel like a citizen when you're in a young rock band, it's all about the rock experience - and if you have the good fortune to still be writing songs 30 years later when you're an adult, the things you think about and the things that affect you obviously show up in the music and the lyrics. It's a unique opportunity to still be writing all these years later, and I think unlike a lot of bands who are kind of trading on their past, we're trying hard not to."
That means we shouldn't be holding our collective breath for Rush to revisit prog's salad days and write more side-long 20-minute epics à la "2112" and "The Necromancer." "You know, we got really bored with that [writing long pieces] - it's a limitation to take 30 minutes and dedicate it to one idea, you know, divide that up into six different ideas, six different musical adventures. I won't say it hasn't crossed our mind, but we don't want to do it as a premeditated construct, as a thing to do because people expect us to do it."
In that sense, Rush as an entity is more than a rock band, almost a democratic ideal: three members working together to make music that is the melodramatic opposite of the usual rock-and-roll recipe of rebellion and hostility. "It's nice - we don't always agree, but we are able to, for some reason, be ridiculously considerate of each other. I don?t know, maybe it's because our moms brought us up to be nice boys. It's the reason we've been able to keep it together, to be, you know, the last working democracy."
Originally published in the Boston Phoenix, Boston, MA on 06.09.08.
Concert Review: Rush at Starlight
Date: June 7, 2008
Venue: Starlight Theater
Better Than: Watching Strange Brew.
Here was the bad bit of news about Rush's three-hour concert last Saturday night: Lead crooner Geddy Lee's voice was way off on several songs, missing pitches and carrying off-key notes at several junctures. One casualty of Lee's lackluster vocal performance was the band's otherwise spot on run through "2112," arguably its most exciting tune.
But the good news was that Lee's peculiar voice - some call it womanly - has never been the allure of the venerable prog-rock band. It's what has made the band perhaps rock 'n' roll's worst victim of the love-'em-or-hate-'em dichotomy. Rather, it's the immense instrumental talent the three Canadian warriors of mean, mean pride possess that has catapulted the band through seemingly countless original records and subsequent live shows.
It was obvious that the nearly sold-out crowd of mostly 40- and 50-somethings at Starlight Theatre understood this as it saved its loudest applause for Neil Peart's drum rolls, guitarist Alex Lifeson's whammy bar-laden solos and Lee's angular bass riffs. As such, the crowd reacted raucously during a seven-minute drum solo by Peart that ranged in style from hard rock drum rolls to militaristic fills to finally a jazz beat that seemed to dazzle all in attendance. The solo was clearly the highlight of an impressive second half of the band's set, which included several tunes from Rush's newest and 19th album, Snakes and Arrows, and its top hits from the 1980s.
The second half, which followed a decent but at times pedestrian first half, included a rousing rendition of the synth-rock tale of teenage alienation, "Subdivisions," a hard-driving version of "Spirit of Radio" and the ultimate set-closer in "Tom Sawyer."
On the topic of "Tom Sawyer," the song was introduced on stage's video screens by South Park characters playing the roles of each band member who couldn?t agree whether the The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were different stories. The video, which killed the spontaneity of "Tom Sawyer's" intro, was among several whimsical and bizarre videos the band played at various points in the show. One video for a song from Rush's newest album, The Larger Bowl, showed imagery of the Ku Klux Klan, Asian sweatshops and threats to illegal immigrants to match the song's lyrics about various social inequities. Oddly enough, the band saw fit to introduce the song with a waggish video starring Strange Brew actors Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis playing their simplistic characters from the 1983 parody of Canadian culture. It seemed disjointed, given the following song's themes.
For the most part, the band raced through its 26-song set without much commentary between songs. Lee was at his liveliest in the set's closing songs, skipping around the stage. Peart soared effortlessly through complicated drum beats and fills with facial expressions akin to someone sitting at a desk and stuffing envelopes for a living.
The encore showcased the new, the relatively obscure and the classic with the band playing "One Little Victory," "Passage to Bangkok" and closing with "YYZ." After about three hours, it appeared that the crowd had gotten about everything out of the apparently exhausted Rushsters on a sweltering night. With the exception of Lee's apparent vocal troubles, one couldn't have asked for much more.
2. Digital Man
3. Ghost of a Chance
6. The Main Monkey Business
7. The Larger Bowl
8. Red Barchetta
9. The Trees
10. Between the Wheels
12. Far Cry
13. Workin' Them Angels
14. Armor and Sword
16. The Way the Wind Blows
18. Natural Science
19. Witch Hunt
21. Spirit of Radio
23. Tom Sawyer
24. One Little Victoryv
25. Passage to Bangkok
Personal Bias: I own most of the band's 19 albums.
Random Detail: Lee's bass amp-stack included what appeared to be three dozen chickens on a rotisserie. The inexplicable references to chickens never became clear.
By The Way: Lee is known to be a huge baseball fan, but he showed his local basketball colors by emerging from Peart's drum solo with a Kansas Jayhawks national basketball championship t-shirt for the remainder of the show.
Originally published in The Pitch, Kansas City, MO on 06.09.08.
Rush bassist makes donation to Negro Leagues Museum
Close to 200 baseballs, all autographed by former Negro Leagues baseball players or backers, have been donated to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum by a somewhat surprising fan ... Rush bassist Geddy Lee.
It's among the largest single donations the museum has had, according to director of marketing Bob Kendrick. It also represents some history the museum didn't previously have.
"Some of these guys have been dead for some time, and we could not get these (signatures) before no matter what their significance was in the Negro Leagues," he said.
There are famous names like Cool Papa Bell, Hank Aaron and Lionel Hampton, a famous fan of the leagues. Then there are men like Fireball Bill Beverly and Piper Davis, who would go on to manage Willie Mays in his early days in the league.
"Many people credit him with teaching Mays to hit a curve ball," Kendrick said.
Lee, whose band performs Saturday at Starlight, dropped by the museum last year unannounced, Kendrick said.
"I wasn't here, but another employee walked him through the museum, and apparently he fell in love with the place," Kendrick said. "He already had a huge respect for the Negro Leagues, as the collection shows, and this brought it home to him."
Kendrick said the museum still needs to figure out how to display the baseballs, but just having Lee make the donation is a big plus for the museum.
"It opens us up to another audience that may not have thought about the Negro Leagues prior," he said. "And again it shows the wide range of folks who have been struck by this story."
Originally published in The Kansas City Star, Kansas City, MO on 06.04.08.