May 20, 2015
It wasn't more than two or three songs into Rush's retrospective "R40" show, spanning four decades of music, Wednesday night at Toyota Center that my friend and I noticed them. It was a group of young girls standing on the front row at the side of the stage, no older than their early twenties. The fact that there were young women at a Rush show was strange in and of itself. The Canadian trio hasn't exactly been known throughout their career for attracting the fairer sex. But this was different.
"They know all the words!" my friend said with a level of shock that rose with each song. As the band dug deeper and deeper into its set — a set that was laid out in backward chronological order — from the recent Clockwork Angels all the way back to their eponymous debut, those girls sang along, word for word, note for note.
Rush has always inspired the kind of fandom that defies explanation. Since the band's inception, fans have poured into packed arenas and concert halls to sing, bounce and air-drum their way through show after show. The heavily male audience has remained remarkably loyal, and the band has rewarded them with a level of musicianship not typically heard in rock music.
On Wednesday, that trademark skill was on display in what many believe with be the band's final full-blown world tour. With all the members in their sixties, it's a wonder they can conjure the energy to make it through the two grueling sets of frenetic, complex arrangements totaling nearly three hours of music. But they show little sign of wear, and their abilities have only seemed to improve with age.
Fans always hope for some more obscure numbers worked into shows, and Rush did not disappoint. In addition to the familiar "Tom Sawyer" and "Working Man," they dropped in nuggets like "Jacob's Ladder," "Cygnus X-1," Part Four of 2112's side one opus called "The Presentation" (featuring an argument between a musician and futuristic elders trying to suppress creativity in a dark, postapocalyptic future), "Anthem" and even "Lakeside Park," which probably hasn't been on a Rush set list since the '70s.
The high-water mark was the epic 11-minute "Xanadu" from 1977's Farewell to Kings, featuring Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson on dueling double-neck guitars, two of the massive store of vintage instruments they brought on tour — all of Lee's listed in the band's tour program. The song placement was particularly notable between the mellower, partially acoustic "Closer to the Heart" and the abbreviated, end-of-set rendition of the prog-rock staple "2112."
Speaking of gear, as the band performed, workers in red jumpsuits moved on and off the stage slowly transforming the gear behind Lee and Lifeson. Song by song, they removed pieces of the set, changing them from the recent steampunk-inspired rigs to the stacks of Marshalls and Ampegs, breaking them down until there were only a pair of small Traynor amps on either side of the stage sitting on old wooden classroom chairs as an image of a high school gymnasium appeared on the screen behind them.
Rush's legendary drummer, Neil Peart, didn't get to experience the same piece-by-piece equipment transformation as his bandmates, but after the break between sets, his kit was altered to include an assortment of chimes, bells and percussion, a throwback to some of his massive sets of decades past, all of which got use on a variety of tunes.
As I looked around the crowd, noticing the mix of young and old, all throwing hands in the air and mimicking every drum fill, it dawned on me that Rush might now — finally, as the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl said at the band's long anticipated induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 — be cool. After all, in addition to the celebrities like Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Tom Morello and Peter Dinklage, who provided videotaped lip syncing to the rap in "Roll the Bones," those same girls over beside the stage were still singing every word. They even knew "What You're Doing," a song most devotees probably forgot existed. Then again, a band like Rush doesn't thrive as it has for 40 years without a legion of dedicated fans who know the words...and drum fills...to every song.
Personal Bias: My friend was wearing the shirt he got at the Summit on the "Signals" tour, and I was sporting a jersey from 2007 my wife got me on eBay for my birthday.
The Crowd: More females than in recent years and a wide range of ages.
Overheard In the Crowd: "God, I hope they play By-Tor."
Random Notebook Dump: The best line of the night came from Lifeson during the final video as fans were streaming out: "This is nuts. Fuck you, puppet!"