DETROIT — The Midwest has been mighty good to Rush.
The trio’s four-decade rock ride got its U.S. start here in the heartland, which embraced the Toronto band with gusto before the rest of the country caught on.
Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee and Neil Peart have embarked on a Rush tour that will stretch into summer 2013.
Guitarist Lifeson remembers the band’s first U.S. foray — an honor claimed by Michigan.
“We actually snuck in and played a festival in Lansing, spring of ‘74, before our first major tour that August,” he says. “There’s always been a great affinity between us and the fans there. The Midwest is such a strong rock area, between places like Detroit and Cleveland. I think that’s the heart of the rock ‘n’ roll world, so it’s always a treat for us.”
The tour supports “Clockwork Angels,” the band’s 19th studio record and a nod to Rush’s concept-album days. Released in June, it got a strong thumbs-up from fans and a round of attention from mainline media outlets — part of the belated respect that has graced the group in recent years.
Lifeson spoke with the Detroit Free Press:
Q: The set list seems to still be in flux on these early tour dates, and it’s definitely got fans’ attention.
A: What happened is the thing that always happens — the set was much longer than what we had to limit ourselves to. We didn’t want to get rid of those songs, so we picked a Set A and a Set B, and since then we’ve been tweaking it a bit, playing a couple and moving them around. I mentioned to Ged the other day: It’s kind of nice to arrive at a gig in the afternoon and decide which songs to switch out that night and keep it mysterious, especially now that everything is blogged and tweeted and e-mailed.
And it’s been a whole set list controversy. Having a deep catalog like this makes it difficult to play enough songs that everybody wants to hear. Everybody has their favored and less favored songs. Rush fans are great at debating the merits of songs. And good at expressing their disappointment and elation. (Laughs)
We don’t usually do this type of thing, so we may get back in our usual groove. I’d be an advocate for some other stuff, songs we didn’t prepare perhaps.
Q: You’ve got a string ensemble touring with you this year. That’s certainly a first for Rush.
A: I don’t think we ever had anyone up on stage with us. This is different — eight-piece, really great people. They’ve become part of the whole team, so to speak, right from the start, so we’re quite thrilled. They’re great players, and they really warmed up to the material and are playing with passion.
I’m surprised by the influence it’s had on some of these other (non-“Clockwork Angels”) songs. David Campbell, who did the arrangements — there was a bit of confusion in the beginning, and he ended up scoring arrangements for all the songs. We threw a couple of curves at him. It’s so very different from what we’ve normally done. There are 14 songs altogether (rehearsed with strings), and we’re playing 11 or 12 each night.
I think there may have been a concern by some people that it would soften the material by adding strings, but it’s the opposite — it’s made it more dramatic and dynamic. It brings out this whole other thing in those songs.
Q: How is the tour preparation — physical and mental — different now from, say, 30 years ago?
A: This is the longest rehearsal period we’ve had. We set aside seven weeks, and I started rehearsing a week before that. I know Neil started a month before rehearsals, Geddy a week out. Then we started getting a lot more serious about going to the gym with a workout program about a month before we started, ramping it up a little bit toward the end. I guess it’s probably two or three months of preparation total.
Back then, it was more like … maybe 15 minutes? (Laughs) It was a whole different thing then. We didn’t have the complexity we have now in terms of staging. In the early days, certainly, we were playing a couple hundred shows a year. I don’t even recall rehearsing. We sort of made a set list and went out and played it.
Q: Rush continues to benefit from this new, broader mainstream respect that had eluded the band for so long. Does that provide some satisfaction?
A: It does. It’s kind of weird, though. I don’t know if it’s the fact we’ve been doing this for 40 years now together, but what we do is so totally normal to us. So I know it’s a bit of a big deal, but not to us. We do what we do. We’re very engaged in how we put shows together — we’re not affected by the waves we go through. Right now, yeah, we’re more popular than we’ve ever been to a broader audience, that’s for sure. But all we’re concerned with is how we play on a given night. It’s good to have that notoriety, but we just accept it with a modest smile and a thank-you.
Q: The album has landed kudos all around. Was there a moment when you realized you’d nailed it with this one?
A: I think when we started recording it. When Geddy and I started writing the music, we were pleased with the way it was going. Something captivating about some of the choruses, some great vocal melodies that seemed to connect. We had a sense that we’d kind of nailed it structurally. When we started recording them — the sounds coming together, the addition of Neil’s very spontaneous drum parts — it started to feel like we were onto a very good thing.
Working on this record was a very enjoyable experience. Ged and I have so many years playing together — 43 years, as a matter of fact — and I don’t think I’ve had so much fun, so much trust and confidence going into a writing stage.