Warning: Heere there be spoilers, arrrgh!
There are fifteen thousand nerds gathered in this one place. That was the comment of the man seated in the row behind me. We were in the BOK Center in Tulsa, OK (21 September 2010) to hear Rush’s Time Machine tour. Is the characterization fair? Yes, probably. At least Rush’s longevity and steady fans demonstrate that there is a place for smart guys in rock music. According to what I’ve read, the band is even achieving some measure of mass appeal, something that seems worrisome. Ultimately, though, Rush shows that one can find success through being true to one’s own Muse.
Their cornball humor has not improved, and I mean that in the best way. Did you know that the band started out as Rash, playing in a diner whose slogan is, “Nobody beats my sausage”? They made several tries at “The Spirit of Radio,” first with an oompah sound, then disco and hillbilly, and finally the original Permanent Waves version before a musical invention, the GeFilter machine, brought out the real band for the live performance. Later, in a video sketch featuring “Tom Sawyer,” Neil Peart gets put on the guitar, Alex Lifeson on bass, and Geddy Lee on drums, relieved occasionally by three chimps.
Staying true does not mean that Rush has paid no attention to what’s going on in the surrounding culture. This tour had a steampunk atmosphere, especially in the video projected during “Caravan.” The images of steam-driven airships working their way into an industrial city built the background for the lyrics about a young man who is following his own stars.
GeFilter, the steampunk time machine, was the controlling image on the screen throughout the concert. It looked like a prop from the 1960 movie, The Time Machine, with its vacuum tubes and bakelite knobs. The year dial rolled around to the years that one album after another had been released. Five minutes before the band returned from intermission, it showed 1974 and then slowly crept forward. At each change, fans called out, “They’re going to play _____!”
Would it be 2112, Hemispheres, Permanent Waves? Finally, it stopped at 1980, and we were given the entire Moving Pictures album. “Red Barchetta” and “The Camera Eye” are sophisticated songs, too long for play on typical FM radio and rare in concert, so this was a treat to hear them live.
As suggested above, the band has always listened to what was being played around them, starting with Led Zepplin in the early 70s through the synth pop of the 80s and grunge in the 90s. In this concert, they played the wistful “Time Stands Still” just as it was meant to be, a reflective song about what is important to pay attention to in life, with the hauntingly beautiful voice of Aimee Mann floating around the hall. “Stick It Out” was as aggressive and punchy as it had been in 1994. The video of a man bound on a chair and struggling to free himself was the same one that they had used in their Counterparts tour. The last song, “Working Man,” started as a reggae remake, then returned in an instant to the heavy metal original.
But most of the music sang out of the songbook created by Moving Pictures and Snakes and Arrows. Lifeson brought in acoustic guitar parts to several of their older songs for the first time and played a solo introduction to “Closer to the Heart” that was reminiscent of “Broon’s Bane” from Exit . . . Stage Left. Acoustic guitar may not seem to be the first choice for a power trio, but Lifeson uses it to give nuance to force. Lee’s bass performance was astonishing, as always, but also freer and more playful. His singing, the constant and understandable point of objection to those who can’t stand Rush, was melodic and mature, what it has been since his solo album, My Favorite Headache. The falsetto part in “Free Will,” pitched a bit lower than in the past, actually had notes, rather than a mere screech. About Peart, what can I say? He is playing with a lot more effects. Perhaps as the synthesizer has less of a role in Lee’s part, Peart is filling in the gap. Certainly, Peart’s drumming is of a kind that few others have achieved. His solo was eight minutes of everything in the set played over his usual bass-high-hat triplets that ended in the jazz piece that he has used since Burning for Buddy. On the screen behind him, a mechanical spider played along with all eight legs on a steampunk kit.
For technical performance, there is no better band, but as I wrote earlier, the three have returned to the sound that they had in Moving Pictures, but now informed by everything else that they have done in between. The two new songs that they played, scheduled for release on Clockwork Angels in the spring of 2011, had all the energy of the songs on Vapor Trails and the maturity of Snakes and Arrows. Just as with many of the songs on that latter album, “Caravan” and “Brought Up to Believe” are distinctively Rush songs, but not ones that I can imagine them playing twenty or even ten years ago.
Rush has long been the band for the thoughtful and independently-minded fan of rock (all right, nerd), but Snakes and Arrows and, so it appears, Clockwork Angels are exploring new depths. I hope that they keep showing off the technical skill of their older songs (the instrumental trio in “Free Will” is a warning to would-be rockers–here’s what we can do. . .), but I look forward to the artistry of mature masters that is to come.