Words by Mike Dekalb. Photos by Dave Gatson
The sense of community one experiences at a Rush concert is amazing. You see total strangers from every tour of the previous three decades sharing experiences with each other. This will usually include debates over their favorite songs, recollections of their first concerts, and comparisons to other artists of the “progressive rock” genre from the 1970s. Plus there are usually an inordinate number of fathers in attendance who will bring their children to the show in an effort to influence the next generation. As they wait for the show to begin, it feels like we’re at a giant barbecue in someone’s backyard.
Then the lights go down, and the crowd erupts…
Rush have been known to open their concerts with funny short films, and tonight is no different. This time, it’s a spoof of the band’s formation, set in a gloomy diner in Germany. The three young lads are toiling away on their instruments to a non-existent audience of disinterested customers before a time machine sweeps them forward blindly. Then the film stops. And the music begins.
The opening notes of “The Spirit of Radio” echo through the concert hall, as the lights slowly come up to reveal the three gifted musicians, our guides for tonight’s musical odyssey. While time has taken its toll on the band, the effect is virtually unnoticeable: their artistry is precise, their attitude is confident, their demeanor is joyous. It remains a fan favorite, and it’s a perfect song to open the show.
From there, the time machine takes them back and forth through the ’80s and ’90s, as they roar through both radio hits and beloved album tracks like “Time Stands Still” and “Stick It Out.” A few more songs showcasing the group’s underrated, 21st century output (2002’s Vapor Trails and 2007’s Snakes and Arrows) prompts bassist/singer Geddy Lee to remark that “This happens all the time – we brought too many songs with us!” But this time machine goes forward as the band introduces the song “BU2B” from their forthcoming release, which will be the group’s 19th studio album. it’s a solid rocker that stands alongside their previous efforts from the past decade.
By now, the crowd is hungry for the time-tested hits, and the band obliges with two classics: “Freewill,” featuring arguably the greatest guitar solo in a Rush recording (which elicits a separate round of applause for guitarist Alex Lifeson once he finishes mid-song); and “Subdivisions,” a synth-heavy drum workout, inciting many in the crowd to play along on their own invisible drum kit.
As the band leaves the stage for a brief intermission, Lee quips, “Due to the fact that we’re about 1,000, we’re going to take a break.” The crowd now has a chance to catch their breath, reminisce with the fans seated next to them, and gear up for the highlight of the show.
After the break, another short film parodies the creation of the Moving Pictures album, with the German juveniles piecing together their greatest hit “Tom Sawyer.” Once again, the time machine flings them forward, the film stops and the music starts. The crowd is greeted with the legendary anthem. As the band continues through Moving Pictures, it’s funny to think that the first four songs from the 7-song album (“Tom Sawyer,” “Red Barchetta,” epic instrumental “YYZ” and “Limelight”) have probably been performed at virtually every Rush show for the past thirty years. Yet there’s something different this time, as though each member has a renewed sense of passion while playing these revered singles. With wide smiles on each of their respective faces, they are now treating the audience to a musical awakening.
The final three songs from the album prove to be the high-water mark, as even the biggest Rush fans have probably not seen them performed live in years. Lifeson’s blistering guitar work powers “The Camera Eye,” a 10-minute opus about life in a big city (easily befitting to the Angelenos in attendance). Bombastic pyrotechnics introduce “Witch Hunt,” a cautious parable mirroring the ever-present political climate. Tense synthesizers blend with reggae on album closer “Vital Signs,” a composition of nervous paranoia that could very well fit into another classic album from 1981, The Police’s Ghost in the Machine.
With the past of Moving Pictures behind them, the band boards the time machine for one last trip to the future with a performance of new single “Caravan.” If this is what Rush fans have to look forward to, then they’re sitting pretty. It’s a straight-up rocker in the classic mold, featuring the band’s recognizable shifts in time signature and tempo. Upon the song’s conclusion, Lee and Lifeson quietly leave the stage in darkness, leaving one man: Drummer Neil Peart.
What follows is a drum solo. There are no words that can accurately describe the power of witnessing a Neil Peart drum solo. However, I’m willing to estimate that half of the audience was comprised of people who are musicians themselves, and the rest of the people probably wish they were. Many of the lucky children in attendance will soon wish to play an instrument of their own after tonight, and while many of them may have been thinking they would opt to learn guitar or bass, that mindset would quickly switch to the drums after watching Mr. Peart’s 10-minute percussion assault.
The cathartic and rapturous applause for the drum solo soon leads to a few more familiar tracks to close the set, including endearing sing-a-long “Closer to the Heart” and “Far Cry,” a concert staple-to-be from their previous album. The stage goes dark after the 24th song of the evening – it’s been two and a half hours, but everyone knows there must be more. After what seemed like only a split-second of rest, the band returns for the two-song encore: “La Villa Strangiato,” another epic instrumental (how many of these does Rush have?!), and their first hit from 1974, “Working Man,” which is given a reggae-infused introduction just to avoid complacency amongst the eager audience.
As the band leaves to thunderous applause, the huddled masses in the crowd are now eager to find those strangers they met before the concert to compare and contrast what they’ve witnessed to previous shows they have seen. The fathers are checking with their children to see if bringing them along was a good idea, even though the astonished looks on the kids’ faces is proof positive that their hunch was right. This ever-expanding community of fans has now welcomed new members, and has certainly grown tighter. But that’s bound to happen when your music is as timeless as that of Rush.
Photos by Dave Gatson