Turning 60 two days prior to the SLC show, Geddy Lee shows no intentions of slowing down. Photo: Paul Duane
Nearly 20,000 faithful devotees put their lives on hold Wednesday night to gather together in a very large venue to sing praises to three men whom many hold in near diety status. No, I'm not talking about LDS General Conference, though the level of devotion at this event is arguably higher than anything you'll see on Temple Square. I refer to the RUSH concert at USANA Amphitheater.
RUSH is a band that matters, because although you may not have any RUSH albums in your collection, it's virtually guaranteed that every rock musician you listen to holds RUSH in idol status. In a recent interview with Ultimate Classic Rock Magazine, Dave Grohl spoke of meeting RUSH as he was inducting them into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame: “This man [Neil Peart, drummer for RUSH] was as influential as any religion or any hero or any person in someone’s life. He said, ‘So nice to meet you. Can I make you a coffee?’ And he made me a coffee, man. And later on that night, I went to dinner and had a couple glasses of wine and I started fucking crying because my hero made me a fucking coffee.”
I digress. This is supposed to be a concert review, not a tribute.
RUSH stopped touring with opening bands back in the ’90s. After 40 years together and 20 studio albums, they have amassed a catalog of work that is too deep and wide to even begin to cover in one evening. Add to this the fact that for every tour, they are supporting a new record, and spend a lot of time playing new material––there is no time for minor distractions like opening bands.
The set list for the three-hour long concert leaned heavily on some deep cuts from their ’80s records, along with the majority of the tracks from the brand new record, Clockwork Angels.
The band entered the sun-drenched stage and soon the opening synth line of “Subdivisions” was resonating throughout the venue. Vocalist/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee's voice cracked a little bit on some of the higher notes at the beginning of the show ... a detail easily overlooked on the fact that he's multi-tasking on vocals, bass guitar and keyboards simultaneously.
One of the recurring themes of RUSH is that of relevance. Virtually every band their age has relegated themselves to either retirement or playing their old radio hits at casinos and county fairs. RUSH continues to push their own boundaries with new studio albums, making an example of the term “progressive rock band.” I was struck by several lines from songs they wrote in the ’80s, and how much they apply to today's social concerns. Rush treated the crowd to three songs from 1985's Power Windows album: “Big Money” (1985) is an indictment of capitalistic greed, a theme that continued in “Grand Designs”:
“So much poison in power, the principles get left out/So much mind on the matter, the spirit gets forgotten about.”
Heady social commentary continued with “Territories”:
“...We keep looking through The eyeglass in reverse/Don't feed the people but we feed the machines/Can't really feel what international means... We see so many tribes overrun and undermined/While their invaders dream of lands they've left behind … The bosses get talking so tough/And if that wasn't evil enough/We get the drunken and passionate pride/Of the citizens along for the ride/They shoot without shame/In the name of a piece of dirt/ For a change of accent/Or the color of your shirt/Better the pride that resides In a citizen of the world/Than the pride that divides when a colorful rag is unfurled.”
Rush's lyrical testicular fortitude shows up again in their 1981 classic, “Limelight,” in which lyricist/drummer Neil Peart basically tells fans to bug off: “Living in a fish eye lens/Caught in the camera eye/I have no heart to lie/I can't pretend a stranger Is a long-awaited friend.”
One of the refreshing things about watching RUSH play is the obvious joy they get from the simple act of playing their instruments. Guitarist Alex Lifeson is one of the more underrated guitarists in rock, though he still pulls huge amounts of respect. He is a smart and humble guitarist, with a knack for knowing when to step forward and shine, and when to lay back and color in the song with his brilliant taste in chords and alternate voicing.
Bassist/vocalist/keyboardist Geddy Lee is a force to be reckoned with. Despite any minor aberrations in his vocal performance, he is a rock tour de force. Lee's bass playing seems to become more ferocious and ballsy with every passing year. In past shows, his bass tone has been incredibly brash (and to good effect), sounding like a piano string run through a red hot guitar pre-amp. Tonight, his tone was a bit warmer, though still growly and commanding as ever. In terms of the overall sound of the show, this was the best audio experience I've ever had at a RUSH concert. Every sound, every nuance, was clear and authoritative.
Lyrics aside, this band is known for their instrumental songs. They treated the audience to a very rare track from 1991's Roll The Bones album, “Where's My Thing?” The bright, shimmery track has, to my knowledge, not seen the stage since the 1992 tour. 2013 finds RUSH breathing robust life into the song with a fascinating mix of buoyancy and hard rock heaviness. Drum solos abounded during this show, one of which occurred in the bridge section of “Where's My Thing?”
While we are on the topic of drum solos, let's discuss Neil Peart's latest creations. Neil Peart is widely regarded as rock's greatest drummer. Since studying with the legendary and late jazz drummer Freddy Gruber, Peart has demonstrated a fascination with big band swing jazz drumming, incorporating elements of it into each of his drum solos for the past decade. Despite being a dedicated fan, I will concede that my serious jazz musician friends felt that Peart's jazz solos were somewhat of an embarrassment, as he lacked depth in his swing (what some other players may call “the pocket”). I was delighted at what he presented to us this night, a total reinvention of his drum solo. Peart programmed the electronic section of his kit with various electronic synth sounds, triggering them with his strikes. If your eyes were closed, you'd think it was being performed on a keyboard. The new solo showed Peart at his best: lyrical, expressive, and supportive of the song.
We all had heard rumors of a special treat that awaited us on this tour ... Following the intermission, the band took the stage. For the first time in their 40-year career, they incorporated other musicians into the concert: a live string section. The new record, Clockwork Angels, finds the band pushing the envelope in both directions. Tracks such as “Caravan” find RUSH at their most heavy, while the final track, “The Garden,” demonstrates RUSH at their finest and features strings in several of the arrangements. The mini orchestra brought wonderful depth to the already rich compositions. Of particular note is the song “The Garden.” This piece shows RUSH, a band capable of bombastic flourishes of technical prowess, playing slowly, confidently, and with a vulnerability that can only signal strength. It's a majestic moment that could only come from the experience and maturity of these elder statesmen of rock.
Following “The Garden,” they launched into another Roll The Bones track, “Dreamline,” The orchestra stayed for this number as well. Following “Dreamline,” the boys treated the audience to another ’80s song that gets a lot of stage time, “Red Sector A.” This is a song about the Nazi concentration camps that Geddy Lee's parents survived during WWII. One of the sublime aspects of RUSH is their ability––their compulsion, perhaps––to ping between the solemn and the irreverent. (For one example of this, check out their acceptance speeches at their recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. It seems a little dry at first, but see it through. You've never seen a speech like Lifeson's.) At tonight's show, we find a band of 60-year-old men making serious social commentary one minute in their music and self-deprecating poop jokes the next in their humorous portrayals of themselves as futuristic gnomes in a parallel steam punk universe.
The show finished up with concert staples, the flashy instrumental “YYZ,” and the ironic 1980 radio hit “Spirit of Radio,” whose lyrics mock and condemn the music industry that was helping make them famous:
“All this machinery making modern music can still be open hearted/Not so coldly charted, It's really just a question of your honesty, yeah your honesty/One likes to believe in the freedom of music/But glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity ... For the words of the prophets were written on the studio wall/Concert hall/And echoes with the sounds of salesmen.”
The encore surprised no one, but delighted all: “Tom Sawyer” and “2112,” both songs themed in principles of rugged individualism, which have become anthems for the throngs of high school A/V club nerds that now pack arenas with their own nerd offspring to bask in the greatness that is an evening with RUSH.
I've been going to RUSH concerts since 1992. One of the remarkable things about this band is that every album, every tour, leaves me wondering how they will ever top themselves ... Yet, every iteration does just that. I thought that the Time Machine tour in 2011 was the best I would ever see RUSH perform, and yet, in 2013, they have set yet another standard of excellence in performance, writing and imagination. If this is what growing old looks like, sign me up.
Check out more photos from the show here.