Rush soars in blistering sets
Musical excellence is a trademark of the Canadian prog-rock trio Rush, and they have lost not a drop as they've reached, as singer-bassist Geddy Lee exaggerated, "a hundred years old."
Thursday night, at Hersheypark Stadium, the trio showed why they're still near the pinnacle of their craft 30-plus years after they began.
Roaring out with their classic "Limelight" and cruising through the jazzy swing of "Digital Man" and the lush beauty of "Ghost of a Chance," guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer-lyricist Neil Peart locked down metronomically perfect grooves and superb melodies, while Lee sang tirelessly well and hit just about every helium-high note.
On "Mission," Lee traded off on keyboards and bass while maintaining his vocal heights. He also soared on a blistering "Freewill," every stratospheric part intact.
Rush played a mind-boggling nine songs from their 2007 "Snakes & Arrows," and a whopping hunk of instrumentals (and theirs are wholly engaging instrumentals, not noodling).
Delving back into the archives for a thrilling "Red Barchetta" (Peart's lyrics so descriptive, you feel like you're speeding right along with him in the car) and a sprightly take on the parable "The Trees" (which featured beautifully delicate playing from Lifeson), they wrapped the first set with a sublime "Between the Wheels" and a sweeping "Dreamtime."
Forgive them for taking a break -- the music is that demanding, whatever age you are.
The start of the second set was largely taken up by new tracks -- a driving "Far Cry," the 6/8 swing of "Working Them Angels," the heavy crunch of "Armor and Sword," and the rhythmically erratic "Spindrift." They delivered a bluesy "The Way the Wind Blows" (with its grand acoustic guitar and harmonies from Lee and Lifeson) before launching just as deeply back into the archives.
The potent "Subdivisions," the rhythmically brutal "Natural Science" (with its evil time changes), and the eerie but wonderfully sung "Witch Hunt" took the band back into instrumental territory. Their irresistibly funky "Malignant Narcissism" introduced a jaw-dropping drum solo from Peart. He went from acoustic drums to electric, from cowbells to a slew of other percussion, before wrapping with a big-band blast with consummate ease - and that ever-stoic expression.
Lifeson's glorious 12-string acoustic track "Hope" was the lull between two storms - Peart's solo and the soaring "The Spirit of Radio." They went way back in the Way-Back Machine for the overture from "2112" before drawing everything to a close with a classic - "Tom Sawyer."
An encore that included "One Little Victory" helped send everyone home solid in the knowledge that Rush is still one of the most vital, powerful bands out there. No matter what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thinks.
Originally published in The Patriot-News, Harrisburg, PA on 07.18.08.
After 34 years, better than ever
At the Molson Amphitheatre
In Toronto on Wednesday
Can it be? Is Rush actually becoming hip?
For years, Rolling Stone - like much of the mainstream American rock press - utterly dismissed Rush, slamming the band's albums when it bothered to review them at all. Yet the current issue of the magazine includes a feature on Rush, one that's as long and laudatory as anything published in Guitar World or Modern Drummer, traditionally the only home for Rush fans in rock journalism.
Does this mean that rock-critic notions of cool have finally broadened enough to include Rush?
As someone who has written about Rush for both sides of that journalistic divide, I'd have to answer, "No." Coverage in Rolling Stone is hardly a confirmation of cool - remember the Barry Manilow cover story in the 1980s? And after watching the band power through its current live show at Toronto's Molson Amphitheatre, I'm inclined to add, "more's the pity."
There are a number of reasons the rock intelligentsia have turned up their noses, from the science-fiction/fantasy elements in some Rush lyrics (e.g. By-Tor and the Snow Dog) through the band's flirtation with prog and heavy rock (definite no-nos at Rolling Stone) to its supposed fetishization of instrumental virtuosity (the stuff that makes Guitar World and Modern Drummer readers drool). But those weren't the elements that came across most strongly in the Toronto show. Instead, the focus was on songwriting, showmanship and classic Canadian wit.
Of those three, the band's sense of humour would probably come as the biggest shock to Rush-haters. We're not talking about a few witty asides during the between-songs patter, either. Rush actually commissioned some hysterically funny video sequences for the tour, including a bit by Doug and Bob McKenzie to introduce The Larger Bowl, and a clip showing South Park's Eric Cartman in a Geddy Lee wig massacring Tom Sawyer.
There was a lovely bit during One Little Victory in which a video dragon seemed to breath fire onto the stage. And, of course, there was most deadpan gag of all, in which guitarist Alex Lifeson's wall of Hughes & Kettner amp stacks was echoed on Lee's side of the stage by three restaurant-sized chicken rotisseries, as if he were running a Swiss Chalet franchise on the side.
Still, it was the music that carried the day. Most of the evening's 28 songs came from the most recent Rush studio album, Snakes & Arrows, which swaps science-fiction lyrics for songs about relationships and politics, and puts more emphasis on melody than on instrumental dazzle. That's not to say the playing wasn't first-rate, just that it seldom drew attention to itself, placing the emphasis instead on texture, dynamics and wonderfully detailed ensemble playing.
Of course, there were also plenty of solos, but they tended to be relatively short, totally song-related and completely free of self-indulgent flash. In fact, Lifeson's solo feature, Hope, was an actual song, not an improvisation, while Neil Peart's three-part drum solo - performed from a revolving riser that gave access to three separate kits - ranks as one of the most hummable drum solos of the rock era. Peart also got the evening's biggest ovation, no surprise given that much of the crowd spent the evening playing air drums.
As for Rolling Stone's notion that Rush's enduring popularity is somehow a harbinger of the "American Nerd Age," you wouldn't have known that from the Toronto audience, which ran the gamut from whooping metal-heads to whole families of fans.
In truth, there's a simple reason why Rush has continued to prosper after 34 years and 24 gold albums - they've never stopped growing. Rush today plays better, writes better and sounds better than it ever has. And you don't need Rolling Stone's endorsement to make the band worth hearing.
Originally published in The Globe And Mail, Toronto, ON on 07.12.08.
Was there any doubt?
Legendary Canadian rockers Rush blew away their fans last night at the Amphitheatre
Rush has never been a band that rushes through its music in concert.
Intricate playing, challenging song structures, lyrics that don't quite fit simple rhyme schemes and tracks that often stretch into six minutes make for a lengthy prog-rock marathon as opposed to any semblance of a fast-paced sprint.
So with the trio of singer-bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart hitting the homestretch of their Snakes & Arrows world tour with a homecoming show at Toronto's Molson Amphitheatre last night, the group proved once again that they might be getting long in the tooth, but when it comes to musicality there are few who can match them.
Beginning their roughly 160-minute, two-set journey with a video introduction and the strong Limelight, the group relied on Lee's high-register wails, Peart's constant pounding and precise fills and Lifeson's guitar work which at times resembled that of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour.
After the stellar, well-oiled Digital Man and the somewhat slower but heady Ghost of a Chance, Lee acknowledged the crowd quickly, stating that they were about to play "a ton of songs."
And they did just that, with the first half composed primarily of classics such as Mission and Freewill, the latter getting a huge ovation once the lyrical portion was done and the instrumental closing began.
With a backdrop that featured three video screens, lasers, the odd fireball and pyrotechnics (not to mention three chicken rotisserie ovens), Rush kept the energy going for the rabid, near-capacity crowd during The Larger Bowl and the leaner, mainstream rock feel of Red Barchetta which Lee said dated back to when "you guys probably had mullets."
Just before a well-deserved 30-minute intermission which Lee said was "due to the fact we're no longer spring chickens," Rush also nailed The Trees as Peart's large drum kit spun 180 degrees to show yet more surfaces to beat upon.
Probably to drive the fact home that they were touring behind a relatively new album, Rush opened the second half with a large batch of new material beginning with Far Cry. Although the volume seemed to reach another level for some reason, a few tunes fell short such as Workin' Them Angels and Spindrift.
Fortunately there were a few gems here, especially the edgier Armor and Sword and the great The Way the Wind Blows, a meaty, winding rock number that would not be out of place on Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti album.
From there Rush went back to the "veteran" songs starting with Subdivisions from 1982's Signals album and Natural Science. Yet the highlight of the second half and perhaps the evening was none of Lee's or Lifeson's doing.
Neil Peart went to work on a lengthy drum solo that was equal parts rock, ambient and jazz. Toss in some excellent tight camera shots of him hard at work and it was easy to see why he got such a loud, standing ovation.
Rush began rounding out the evening with the signature warhorses. The Spirit of Radio went over strong while Tom Sawyer, introduced by a video featuring South Park characters in the band Lil Rush, capped off the main portion of a roughly 90-minute second half.
Perhaps the only drawback with this current leg of touring is the fact that most of the show is not a huge surprise. A few changes from the 2007 set list were made but basically the recent Snakes & Arrows Live album release is what was performed on this go around.
Regardless, it's quite refreshing to see three musicians play their own instruments so well for so long.
Sun Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars
Originally published in the Toronto Sun, Toronto, ON on 07.10.08.
Review: Rush at Mohegan Sun
Rush may well be the only band left with fans who look forward to that hoariest of '70s rock conventions, the drum solo.
Then again, neither Rush nor its drummer, Neil Peart, has ever been conventional: His solos draw people back from the bathrooms and the beer stands. When he launched into his turn in the spotlight Monday at Mohegan Sun, many in the crowd who had been seated rose for a better look at his smooth, efficient and blindingly fast rhythmic showcase.
Peart's solo came in the latter half of the band's 2 1/2-hour performance of music from as far back as 1976. Along with some of its best-known tunes, the Canadian trio dug deeper into its catalog for songs that have rarely been part of Rush set lists in recent years.
The group also played several tunes from its most recent album, last year's "Snakes & Arrows," which highlighted something else unique about Rush fans: their tolerance for new music from a band with plenty of classic material.
In fact, they're more than tolerant. Geddy Lee's round, punchy bass line drew cheers on the instrumental "Malignant Narcissism," as did Alex Lifeson's mandola interlude on "Workin' Them Angels" -- both newer songs.
Still, it's tough to beat the old stuff. The band opened the show with "Limelight," a song about (in part) playing shows, and went on a quick recap of Rush's various stylistic shifts with the muscular reggae backbeat of "Digital Man," the softer musing of "Ghost of a Chance" and the pulsing synths of "Mission."
Lifeson played a sizzling solo on "Freewill," with Lee's busy bass rumbling along underneath. Peart played ascending fills on woodblocks on "The Trees" in between bouts of virtuosic guitar riffage, and unleashed muscular fills on the first two sections of the rock suite "2112."
The second set featured a couple of rarer gems: Lifeson played a huge, grinding riff on "Witch Hunt," and the band reverted to 1980 on "Natural Science," an epic song flowing from acoustic to electric sections, with complicated shifts in rhythm and tempo.
After finishing with "Tom Sawyer," Rush returned for a three-song encore that included vintage favorite "A Passage to Bangkok," complete with video clips from "Reefer Madness," and ended the show with the frenetic instrumental "YYZ."
2. Digital Man
3. Ghost of a Chance
6. The Main Monkey Business
7. The Larger Bowl (A Pantoum)
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
20. Malignant Narcissism, with drum solo
22. The Spirit of Radio
23. 2112 (I: Overture; and II: The Temples of Syrinx)
24. Tom Sawyer
25. One Little Victory
26. A Passage to Bangkok
Originally published in the Hartford Courant, Hartford, CT on 07.08.08.
Rush rock progressively harder
Is there any more apt way to spend the Fourth of July holiday weekend than with a trio of Canadian rockers?
A good-sized group of Rush enthusiasts apparently thought not, as they crowded into the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Saturday night to absorb the music of the Toronto-born band.
And Rush, which has produced 22 albums since its inception 39 years ago, did not disappoint its fans from the south -- nor did the Canadians forget the U.S. holiday.
"Happy birthday, America!" bass guitarist Geddy Lee declared at one point during the show.
Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart took the opportunity to solidify their reputation as "progressive" rockers -- a label they've been given for pushing the compositional limits.
They sampled from throughout their career, though the emphasis was on their latest album, "Snakes & Arrows," which hit No. 3 on the Billboard chart when it was released in May 2007.
Both "Workin' Them Angels" and "The Way the Wind Blows" showed the latest production was one worthy of a second go-around. The band toured in support of the album last year, as well.
But the band members had no qualms about digging deeper into their bag, pulling out "Ghost of a Chance" from 1991's "Roll the Bones," 1987's "Mission," 1980's "Freewill," 1981's "Limelight" and 2003's "Natural Science."
And they did it all with the kind of showmanship that should be expected of a band that's been on the road now for the better part of a half-century.
Video montages on a series of high-definition screens, the occasional fireworks and the ubiquitous and ever-changing colors of lasers and lights coalesced in what served, in turns, as both a distraction and an explanation of the sometimes undiscernible lyrics emanating from Geddy's mouth.
And though Peart, the band's voice as its main lyricist, blended into his drum set visually, his presence was very much felt throughout the evening.
That was especially true when the skull-cap-wearing drummer sat alone on stage, giving his multi-piece, rotating set a serious drubbing.
Geddy's poise at the synthesizer also added a unique twist to the show, proving that a three-piece band can perform as if there were several more musicians on stage -- and that these rock artists know how to incorporate a little bit of jazz, and what one might call sci-fi, into their music.
On the last leg of a four-month tour, the band capped the evening with "Tom Sawyer" -- which made Lee's voice recognizable to the masses -- and the instrumental "YYZ."
Originally published in The Post-Star, Glens Falls, NY on 07.07.08.
Rush mixes old and new at SPAC
When Rush first began playing Albany's Palace Theatre, in the latter half of the 1970s, they dressed like foppish rogues, sporting kimonos and obis and teased, fluffy hair.
These days the band dresses more like their road crew, but they can still rock with the best of them.
The Canadian power trio returned to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center Saturday night, touring behind its latest release, "Snakes & Arrows."
Little but the clothing has changed over the years. Bassist Geddy Lee's screechy love-it-or-hate it voice remains at the forefront, backed by challenging musical structures that freely mix old-school hard rock with prog rock flourishes and world music influences.
The new album does hearken back to the group's leaner, poppier strengths of the 80s, but it also boasts its share of instrumentals and edgier moments.
One of those instrumentals, "The Main Monkey Business," served as a showpiece Saturday, giving guitarist Alex Lifeson a chance to stretch while drummer Neil Peart muscled underneath.
Others from the new record, mostly delivered as a clutch at the top of the second set, included "Far Cry," "Workin' Them Angels" and "The Way The Wind Blows."
The latter offered Lee's finest vocal of the night. It's new enough that he's still invested in it, yet hasn't settled on one way to sing it. The tune sounded fresh, and shimmered with a touch of falsetto. Lifeson's harmonies even added a Beatles-y brightness.
But Rush has a long history (the group formed in 1968, and solidified with Peart in 1974) and many in the big crowd were there to hear classics.
"I'm sorry," Lee quipped at one point, "we have so many songs ..."
In addition to songs, the group has had many periods, so rather than trying to address all of its phases Rush simply selected prime cuts like "Mission," "The Trees" and "Subdivisions."
A tighter focus was put on the early 80s masterstrokes "Permanent Waves " and "Moving Pictures."
At least half a dozen songs were culled from that particular era, including the opening "Limelight," "Red Barchetta," the epic "Natural Science," "Freewill," "Spirit of Radio" and the show-closing "Tom Sawyer."
Collectively, the band seemed to have the most fun with "Radio," a tune marked by Lifeson's distinctive looping intro figure and Lee's earnest interpretation of Peart's lyric.
Production-wise the evening was highlighted by multiple screen documentation; a bevy of video clips; and a fair shake of lasers and pyrotechnics.
And Lee, a fan of comedy and practical jokes, put chicken cookers in place of his onstage amp rack. Last time through he had washing machines.
If these guys stay on the road much longer, next time it will be lift chairs.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs
Length: 3 hours, 30 minutes; one intermission.
Highlights: "Spirit of Radio" and "The Way The Wind Blows."
Originally published in the Times Union, Albany, NY on 07.06.08.
Rush plays with a much-adorned stage
Rush played what appeared at first to be a dinner theater show Wednesday at the Post-Gazette Pavilion. The stage was adorned of all things with large rotisserie ovens filled with chickens, not unlike those at George Aiken.
How that played into the "Snakes & Arrows" tour isn't clear, but let's just be grateful there weren't live snakes involved.
Which brings us to an obvious pun about how a three-piece band from the '70s -- all on the wrong side of 50 -- managed to get through its set never running afowl of its music or legacy.
Rush just might be the noisiest three musicians in the history of rock. There was a constant churn of metallic echo from Alex Lifeson, who may look a little bloated but is still a nimble guitar hero. Neil Peart, sporting a kit with no less than a half-dozen cymbals, is the world's busiest drummer, and he drove the machine with the ultimate precision.
And then there's Geddy Lee, with his long hair and sneakers, still looking like a teenager from my seat in the second tier (thanks, Live Nation). He provided a rumble on the bottom, some atmospheric keys in the middle and the melodic top, with vocals that have come down only a little from the ether. Make no mistake, Lee can still get up there, and he took those octave leaps to impressive heights on show-stoppers like "Free Will" and "The Trees."
The concert was pretty much an encore of last year's comeback show, with a similar set list, so I won't bore you with every detail. The Canadian band pulled from every phase of its catalog, and it's a tribute to the band's vitality that new songs such as "A Larger Bowl," "Far Cry" and "Armor and Sword" -- speaking of a troubled world -- held up nicely alongside the classics. Same goes for "The Way the Wind Blows," with its Zeppelin-esque blues riff and the two rousing instrumentals.
It was all ecstatically received by a crowd of about 10,000 men in their 30s and 40s, four women and a handful of youngsters who heard about the band either from their dads or Coheed & Cambria. Unlike at the more youth-oriented musical events, the only real danger was getting knocked unconscious by air drumming (the results of my MRI are due later today).
There was a lot of that going on when Peart took his solo -- which was a mind blower. He combined old-fashioned pounding with DJ-style electronics, furious cowbell (if that's possible) and an outrageous big band jazz finale that, with the old-time video clips, was as funny as it was impressive.
Rush never seemed like a band that had a sense of humor about itself, but between the chickens, the guy in the chicken suit and the homemade videos, things obviously have changed.)
The show and the air-drumming hit its peak on the "2112 Overture/The Temples of Syrinx," which found the band in its truly epic prog-rock glory. It was smashed between a thrilling version of "The Spirit of Radio" and the ominous "Tom Sawyer," lightened by an introduction by the "South Park" characters. Perhaps a few songs could have been trimmed from the three-hour set to get to that peak even faster.
But, hey, this is coming from someone who went to high school with Rush (not literally) and, aside from a few mind-expanding moments with "2112," was never an obsessive air-drumming geek about them. That said, with all the garbage we've been subjected to in the decades since -- emo or nu metal, anyone? -- classic Rush is practically sounding like Beethoven at this point.
Now about those chickens: I'm told that Lee, who runs his bass through the sound system, uses them to balance the stage against Lifeson's amps. The guy in the chicken suit was the bass-ter. Makes perfect sense now, huh?
Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh, PA on 07.03.08.