Rush has never seemed to care much about fame. Neither have us fans, often a curious mix of former (or current) stoners, nerds and other misfits who began listening to the band during adolescence and have invariably spent years defending their fanhood from people who “don’t understand their songs” or “can’t deal with Geddy Lee’s voice.” My personal favorite goes something like this: “Rush…yeah, well, I guess they’re an acquired taste.” Philistines. It is for their sake that we confine so much of our Rush listening to headphones and solo car rides. This was our catharsis: A night of freedom from the peanut gallery, tailgating in a parking lot where that voice so many hate so much was braying from every car stereo. An open air amphitheatre, with an exhaustive three-and-a-half hour live Rush retrospective in front of us.
7 Aug 2004: Ford Pavilion at Montage Mountain Scranton, Pennsylvania
Even if you don’t know a thing about an act, you can spot an old timer by their punctuality. The ticket said the show would start at 7:30, and so it did. After all, thirty years is a lot of ground to cover. Rush ensured that every era of their career was represented—something that they haven’t always done on past tours. The Zeppelinesque riff to “Finding My Way” led off an opening medley that evoked the band’s earliest years as a long-haired, porkchop-wearing crunch trio. “Bastille Day”, “A Passage to Bangkok”, and a number of other Rush oldies made cameos as a video screen behind the stage provided us with black and white still shots of three improbably young-looking rockers sporting the finest stage clothes that 1975 had to offer.
Following that medley with “The Spirit of Radio”, “Force Ten”, and “Animate”, the band played for nearly half an hour before singer/bassist Geddy Lee greeted the crowd. Rush has never been a very talky band in concert. I was stunned at a 2002 show when guitarist Alex Lifeson actually spoke into the microphone, and I’ve yet to notice Neil Peart even acknowledge the presence of the audience aside from the odd baton toss of his drumsticks. Lee was especially reticent tonight, limiting his comments to brief introductory chatter. “This is one you may recall,” he said before “Subdivisions”. He was right, we knew that one.
Rush’s sound has gone through some very distinct phases, each of which saw them lose some fans and gain others. The night’s procession of songs sounded designed to make sure that no one faction was left high and dry for too long. “Red Barchetta” and “YYZ” from 1981’s Moving Pictures sandwiched “Bravado” and the title track from 1991’s Roll The Bones. There was also a first for a Rush tour: cover tunes. Rush released a collection of covers in June called Feedback, which Peart described as the band “channeling” back to the songs that they listened to during their formative years. The Who’s “The Seeker” preceded the intermission, and Lee and Lifeson broke out the acoustic guitars in the second half for the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul”.
A Neil Peart solo has long since ceased to be simply a showcase of Peart’s talent. It’s a required ritual now, as essential to the live Rush experience as the seventh inning stretch is to a baseball game. Fans would feel like something was wrong if the show wrapped without it. In the past, the solo has usually emerged from within an instrumental number like “YYZ”, “La Villa Strangiato”, or “Where’s My Thing?”, but tonight it had its own entry on the set list.
Peart didn’t invent the rock percussion solo, but he’s probably the man most directly responsible for the fact that practically every arena rock show now features one, and he’s still the standard against which other rock drummers are judged. Watching him tonight, though, it was hard to shake the impression that Peart may, at long last, have engaged the autopilot. You could fit what I know about percussion on a postcard, but between live performances and various recordings, it seems like I’ve heard dozens of Neil Peart solos. And they’re all starting to sound the same. Not monotonous, just…a little predictable, like the movements of a well-oiled automaton. Oh, hey, there goes Neil Peart. Drum solo. Look at him go. And there are the little cowbells, and I know there’s going to be a glockenspiel any sec—yep, there’s the glockenspiel. Yessir. That man can play those drums, he can.
Conversely, one could easily argue that the routineness of Peart’s precision is what makes him great. Too many other drummers play solos that can be summed up by saying, “Wow, that guy can play really fast.” Peart’s live solo is an exclamation point on what the rest of the show has already told us: He is the heart of this band, musically and kinetically.
Rush played the second rock concert I ever attended, and the first that I’m still willing to own up to (think 1986 and a cheesy comeback single that rhymes with “a panda”). This was eons ago, by popular music standards. They were already hardened rock veterans when I first saw them, and the spotlight of mainstream popularity had moved on to fresher faces. If Rush noticed, they didn’t let on. Hundreds of shows later, they’ve released six more studio albums, three live albums, four song compilations, a music video compilation on DVD and a concert DVD. That they’ve kept their original lineup together for thirty years is impressive enough. That they’re still prolific musicians who can draw 16,000 fans to “An Evening With Rush” in old Pennsylvania coal country makes them exceptional. Regardless of whether Rush need the accolades, they are overdue. Hello, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? Lesser bands have passed through your doors.