As my wife and I waited in line to get into the show, we struck up a conversation with the couple in front of us, Richard and Laura of Joplin, Missouri. Richard and I discovered that we both became irrationally devoted Rush fans in the same year, 1981, and, like many Rush fans, Richard has seen the band several times over the years—eight, to be exact. When I told him this was my first show, he looked at me with a slightly shocked and amused expression. “Oh, you’re going to love this,” he predicted, then made a joke about me being a Rush fan longer than quite a number of the other people in line had been alive—made me feel old. But Richard hit the nail right on the head, and I must say that my 21-year wait to see my favorite band was completely worth it!
The current tour in support of their highly-acclaimed album Vapor Trails, is Rush’s first after an involuntary five-year hiatus stemming from the deaths of drummer/lyricist Neil Peart’s daughter and wife. The double tragedy, understandably, shook Peart up so much that the band’s future was in question; but, after his remarriage and a little more than a year in the studio, Rush roared back into the music world in May of this year and began an ambitious tour in June. Bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Geddy Lee said that the band wanted to reciprocate their fans’ support, encouragement, and patience, thus they are touring without an opening act and they’ve dug deep into their repertoire, playing songs from 14 of their 17 studio albums.
When the band hit the stage at 8:00 p.m., the temperature was still over 100 degrees and menacing thunderheads were building in the distance over Kansas City. The Canadian trio entered stage left to their signature processional, the theme from The Three Stooges, and were met with a hearty and (I dare say) affectionate standing ovation. They grabbed their instruments and sprang immediately at the jugular, opening with their classic anthem of resistance and idealism, “Tom Sawyer”.
After the second number, “Distant Early Warning”, a riveting expression of skepticism about the nuclear age and the inane policy of nuclear deterrence, Lee thanked the crowd for attending and for sticking out the hiatus with them. “And,” he continued, “we are going to punish you tonight with way too many songs.” Of course, most of us would have been happy with more punishment, but they did put us through a three-hour show (minus a 15 minute break), a show that clipped along at a blistering pace, as the 50-year-old Canucks cranked out songs with more energy, power, and precision than most 20-something bands could even dream of. After the fourth song, “Roll the Bones”, a heavy indictment of the notion that “good work leads to good fortune” at the expense of the needy and the “innocent children,” Lee looked out at the crowd and asked, “How do you people live in this heat? Up north, we don’t have it so hot.” But, damn if the greater heat wasn’t coming from the stage!
Over the years, Rush has been known for their virtuosity and technically rigorous music, and this has lead to complaints that they are overly philosophical and under-ly emotional. While it could be argued that this might have been the case with some early albums, this complaint withers in the face of their more recent work, ignores the almost maniacal devotion of many Rush fans, and is completely deaf, dumb, and mute in the face of a crowd at one of their concerts. For years, both casual and ravenous fans have sworn that Rush concerts are among the best they’ve ever experienced by virtue of the band’s music, their stage shows, and an intense sense of community among the crowd. This communal experience emerges in the way fans cheer anticipated licks from guitarist Alex Lifeson, or the way an unusually large portion of the crowd sings every song along with Geddy Lee (even the ones that go back to their albums released in the early ‘70s), or go simultaneously nuts at Peart’s mind-blowing drum fills, or in how fans will travel hundreds of miles and attend shows with friends they met at previous shows, or in how parents bring their 3- and 4-year-olds along with their 15 and 16 year olds to shows. Having experienced that first hand now, I understand why Rush fans invariably talk about “the next time” they see the band—my wife, as a matter of fact, turned to me and said, “Ok, next time we’re getting first- or second-row seats.” (She’s a casual fan, by the way.)
The show was filled with so many highlights that if I enumerated them all, I would exceed my word limit and bore you to tears, but a couple should be noted. One of the more poignant moments in the show came as the band performed “Big Money”, a song from their 1986 album Power Windows, an eerily prophetic song thanks to the alchemical math of Arthur Anderson, Enron, WorldCom, Bristol Myers, et al. The crowd erupted in a communal shout with Lee as he sang the immortal line, “Big money got no soul.” This song also contained another highlight when all three paused for a Monty Python clip from Holy Grail, the Taunting Frenchman’s famous, “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.”
A core highlight of any Rush concert is Peart’s drum solo, which on this tour is an engrossing ten minutes long. Peart, widely regarded as one of the premier drummers in the world, combines unbelievable power and finesse, with a penchant for jaw-dropping rhythmic variation and innovation. Peart’s solos are mesmerizing, as you watch him play separate rhythms with each foot and a vastly different rhythm with his hands, perform crossovers with his hands between four or five different drums, or scramble over his seat as the riser beneath him rotates to reveal a set of electronic drums that compliments his standard set, and he doesn’t miss a beat. If all of this is a bit technical, let me sum it up like this: Neil Peart’s drum solo is absolutely mind boggling for both drummers and non-drummers alike. On this tour he has even added a two-minute tribute to the great big band drummer, Buddy Rich, by accompanying a recording of a Rich composition, “Cotton Tail” (if I remember correctly). Following Peart’s solo, Lee and Lifeson played a marvelous acoustic version of “Resist”, a song about pausing our everyday lives to pay attention to plights of others and to the mystery and beauty of existence.
Make no mistake, Rush is, as Peart has eloquently written, “ba-a-a-ack!” and their punishment is pure ecstasy.