Once again Rush visits Atlanta (well, Alpharetta actually), Georgia, at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater on Thursday, November 1st, 2012. This time they were touring their latest CD, Clockwork Angels, their first full-length concept album.
You'd figure that playing together for almost 40 years that Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart would be, well, for lack of a better word, tired - nothing can be further from the truth.
But let me digress for a bit. Sometime after Rush's Snakes and Arrows tour (2008), I started to think about what I would like them to play on their next tour, whenever that would be. My assumption was that they would tour their next CD, like they usually did. But Alex Lifeson announced in early 2010 that they would be touring two new songs, and that the tour would be the called the Time Machine tour, which would include their 1981 release Moving Pictures in its entirety. This was a complete curve ball, but a welcome one no doubt. The show I attended was fantastic, which you can read all about it.
Fast forward to the present, and this time Rush was touring to support an actual CD, but I wasn't about to write another wish-list article (done that already). Now it was time to look forward to the next show. For the Time Machine tour, my daughter and son were to accompany me, but she was unable to attend, and a friend of mine got the unexpected invitation. He'd never seen Rush before or heard about them much, but he was a fan afterwards. This time both my kids came with me. My son had been to only two other concerts in his life, and both had been to see Rush (with me). My daughter has been to a bunch of other concerts, but never with me, and never to see Rush. So this was a first for her as well as for me.
At the Venue
Attending a Rush concert is not just about the musicians, but about the camaraderie of the fans. People who've never seen each other, and probably will never see each other again, easily strike up conversations on their first exposure to Rush, their first concert, their favorite Rush 'era', favorite record, why Alex Lifeson is still underrated, why they're not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and on and on. (Note: Rush has finally been nominated for the aforementioned Hall, which may give Rush fans a sense of validation at last). And you see fans of all ages, and generations of families together: grandparents, parents, and the kids. Everyone is happy to share in their love of Rush.
One thing about the show date was that it was cold. Not such a great idea to have an outside show when the weather happens to be below normal temperatures at this time of the year. Whomever in Rush's management that scheduled this stop should be fired (alright, I'm just kidding).
Because of YouTube and sites like Power Windows - A Tribute to Rush, it's easy to 'cheat', so to speak, and find out beforehand what Rush's set list would be. Well Rush knows this too, so instead of keeping the same set list throughout the tour, they change it every night. There are a core of songs they play always, and then change up some of the other ones. This not only keeps the fans guessing because they don't know what to expect (even if they think they know), it also keeps the shows interesting for Rush - a fresh take every night, which takes the monotony out of touring. Everyone benefits!
Highlights of the Show
After about a 20 minute delay, the lights go out, and a funny video is played depicting the members of Rush being put together piece by piece. Then, the booming synthesizer sound of "Subdivisions" kicks in, which delights all. Geddy was sporting a leather jacket and scarf (to protect his voice from the cold), and looked quite dapper. Alex was looking cool as always with a sports jacket, and Neil was dressed for summer - short-sleeve shirt and all.
One of the things fans pay attention to is Geddy's voice. He's 59 years old (as is Alex; Neil is 60). And usually his voice is a little shaky at the beginning of the show and progressively settles down. But I noticed that at least this night his voice was very much on spot, hitting those high notes accurately and with force. He sang very well throughout the whole night.
The guys are at home even when mistakes occur. During "Grand Designs", Neil drops a stick, but doesn't lose a beat as he pulls out another one and continues. The stick happens to fall in front of the kit. So Alex picks it up and starts playing his guitar with it! He then tosses the stick to an audience member and continues on as usual.
"Limelight" makes its appearance, as Rush continues to flip-flop songs between shows. This song was played where "The Body Electric" or "Middletown Dreams" would be played. I personally was looking forward to seeing "Middletown Dreams" played live, but you really can't go wrong with "Limelight". And speaking of this song, it was played with a sense of youthfulness and 'tightness' that it seemed to lack the last few tours. They played it faster than on previous tours - it sounded fresh. It was played very close to the original, which made it the best version in years. Alex's guitar solo also was reminiscent of the original where the last high note of the solo was sustained, wherein the last few tours he would just play that last note and not sustain it. The song was epic.
By this point I noticed that Neil's drums were not as pronounced as I've heard them before. They were present of course, but I think the bass drum volume could have been turned up a little more. Maybe I'm nitpicking, but hey, I play drums too - I notice these things!
Later in the show Rush played one of my favorite instrumentals, "Where's My Thing?", which they hadn't played since the Roll the Bones tour. This instrumental featured the first of three drum solos that Neil would perform. I took some sneak peeks at this first solo on other nights in the tour, and I thought he played very well, which would have been the 'improvisational' section of the drum solo from other tours. But on this night, Neil was on fire. He was so fast, with the varying waltz patterns and Latin beats, his famous double-handed crossover - he literally was all over the place. Very powerful, very strong. I don't think there is another drummer that plays that hard, at that age. Neil is the 'gold standard' of rock drumming, and he proved it yet again this night. It was a fantastic solo.
The first set closed with "Far Cry", which was played at a faster pace than previously, and the tempo suited the song very well. Then it was intermission time for the 'old guys'.
The Second Set
After yet another funny video, nine of the twelve songs on Clockwork Angels were played, but Rush was not alone. For the first time in their career, Rush had a string ensemble on stage with them, augmenting the songs. Geddy later introduced them as the "Clockwork Angels String Ensemble". This was different than what most other rock bands do with extra orchestra-type musicians. Instead of an orchestra changing the style of the original songs, the string ensemble never overtook or overpowered the band. Their volume was just enough to make the songs seem more grand, giving the songs more of a story-like, epic presentation, but it always sounded like Rush. It was a delicate balance, but it was pulled off beautifully. "Caravan" was a great example of how the ensemble made the song sound different, but it still really was about the band. You can compare "Caravan" from the Time Machine tour vs. this one, and notice the different personalities of the song.
I was very much looking forward to the title track, "Clockwork Angels". The guitar riff is so aggressive, and the accompanying light show was mesmerizing. What no one was expecting was Neil's kit to rotate and him playing the electronic kit for the 'lean not upon your own understanding' section of the song. And when the section finished, the kit rotated back, and Neil continued on the acoustic kit, without missing a beat. Very clever and creative. This is definitely one of my all-time favorite songs.
A note on "The Anarchist" (my son's favorite song from the CD) - it was made to be played live. It was very grand-sounding.
I was excited that "Carnies" was made a permanent fixture of the show (it wasn't early in the tour). Again, the string ensemble enhanced the grandness of the song, without taking it over. I also noticed at this point that I was head-bobbing a great deal in this concert! I didn't really notice until this song, but then I looked at the string ensemble, and they were head-bobbing too! They were having a blast as well. The pyrotechnics towards the end of the song may have been the best of the night.
One Rush's most beautiful songs, "The Wreckers", was next. During the "the brink of war" section of the song, Rush used the lighting in a very creative way by simulating a rain storm, while they showed a video of a ship in stormy seas. Geddy's voice sounded very gentle by itself during the chorus, which was very appropriate. On the CD he's singing the melody also, whereas in the show it's Alex. Speaking of Alex, his guitar solo towards the end of the song was wonderfully executed, which you don't hear on the CD.
Probably the apex of the Clockwork Angels suite came next, "Headlong Flight". The first time I heard this song, I knew I had to cover it - so I did! And I was very much looking forward to seeing it performed live. It did not disappoint - it was fantastic on so many levels. The string ensemble once again enhanced the song to epic proportions, and Neil changed up most of the transitions so even if you knew the CD version, you wouldn't know what to expect from him live. And Geddy's voice soared - he hit all the high, long notes. Late in the show and in the tour, and his voice is still spot on. The second of three drum solos was also featured here. Neil extended his 'single stroke roll' solo, enhanced with sampled triggers of Geddy's bass notes and Alex's guitar chords. Of the many highlights, this song was one of the best.
The next song was one I thought would not make the tour, but I'm glad it did. "Halo Effect" included an extended acoustic guitar solo by Alex, so beautiful that my daughter said that it almost brought her to tears. The song sounded great live - it definitely fit into the live suite.
"Wish Them Well" was next, and there was a funny dancing-type video going on towards the end of the song, and if I remember correctly Geddy was egging Alex on to dance. In any case, the song had a crazy outro jam by all the musicians, which was very cool. To me, though, this was the song's send-off. I predict it will not see another tour.
The last of the suite, "The Garden", may be one of Rush's all-time best songs. It is so different from anything they've done before. The lyrics are so poignant, more so methinks than anything Neil has ever written. The music is triumphant and sad at the same time - a celebration, and a culmination. An ending of sorts. If ever Rush decides to play this song at the end of an encore in a subsequent tour, then the end really may be near.
Eighteen years ago Geddy said the following: "Writing the great song - I still feel like it's in me somewhere. There's a truly great song in me somewhere; but it hasn't come out yet." Geddy, I believe "The Garden" is finally that great song that has been inside of you, and now it has come out. A masterpiece.
The Clockwork Angels suite concluded, but the string ensemble stuck around to enhance some of Rush's older songs. I was happy "Dreamline" was on the set list, a song my daughter grew up listening to all her life. The strings gave it new life, but the band itself played it with seemingly new purpose. It somehow sounded 'younger' - it was tighter, with a quickened pace. Also of note was Alex's return to the high note in the solo that appeared on the original studio version (Roll the Bones, 1991), but seemingly never returned until this tour. Welcome back. :)
It was time now for the third and final drum solo, which Neil played exclusively on the Roland electronic drums. It was very melodic, and again Neil showed why he's such a unique drummer. For him it's just not all about the chops and technique (even though he has them), but everything he does is musical. A lesson in serving the song, not the musician.
The string ensemble's last hurrah was "YYZ", and what a way to conclude. "YYZ" is always a good song, but there have been times where I think the band plays it a little too slowly. This time the speed was just right, and it seems like the song was made for this ensemble. I have two favorite versions of this song: from Exit... Stage Left, and the Grace Under Pressure Tour live DVD. The version from this night joined that group. It was, well, epic.
"The Spirit of Radio" ended the main show, and again it was played with youthful exuberance - and it was late in the show! There's no letup with these guys.
The encore featured "Tom Sawyer", and three sections of "2112" (I. Overture, II. The Temples of Syrinx, and VII. Grand Finale). You need a lot of energy to play "Grand Finale", which is one of my favorite instrumentals, and one of the best endings in Rock, period. The band was so spot on and energetic, even at such a late juncture in the show.
So in the end, the set list for this night was:
The Big Money
The Analog Kid
Where's My Thing? (Drum Solo 1)
Headlong Flight (Drum Solo 2)
Halo Effect (with guitar solo intro)
Wish Them Well
The Percussor (Drum Solo 3)
Red Sector A
The Spirit Of Radio
2112: Overture, The Temples of Syrinx, Grand Finale
I continue to be amazed at the ever increasing level of musicianship that exudes from Rush. It truly is an inspiration. After every tour I always end up wondering if they could keep playing this well, with such precision, and they continue to prove that they can. This is my sixth time seeing this band live, my first two times being way back during their Hold Your Fire tour (1987), and then again for the Roll the Bones tour (1991). I didn't get to see them live again until the R30 tour (2004), and every one since. I have to say that they are playing better now than in those earlier years, and if it's even possible, they continue to get better.
And it's not so much that they necessarily play the older songs better now than they did then. It's debatable if they play "Limelight" or "Tom Sawyer" better now than back in 1981-1984, for example, or if they play "2112" better now than they did in 1976-1979. To me, it's not if they play them better or worse, but that they can still play them at all. Rush can still play anything they've recorded in their 20 studio albums, and play them exceptionally well, and not sound like a cover band of themselves. How many bands can make that claim?
There's no question anymore that Alex Lifeson is one of the greatest Rock guitarists ever - he's there already. He's the spontaneity of the band, highly creative, and still has the dexterity in his fingers to pull off his complicated solos and phrasings. And now he's playing keyboards too!
Geddy Lee has for most of his career been considered one of the best bass players in Rock, but the fact that he's singing all those complicated lyrics and tearing his bass to shreds, well, that's not very common. The fact that he's a great keyboardist allows him to extend his creativity to be an exceptional songwriter. And oh yeah, many times he'll do all three simultaneously (sing, play bass and keyboards), even if he has to use his feet.
And Neil Peart? Well, I'll quote Geddy on this one: "I don't know how he does it." Neil has proven you can be a 30-year old drummer at 60. He's still so strong - he's really bashing those drums and cymbals. His focus is unmatched. To play like that requires so much concentration and preparation, yet he still does it. Watching him play is mesmerizing; you really can't take your eyes off of him. And I really haven't been able to pinpoint why that is, except that he can still play everything he recorded as a young man - with just as much strength, but now with something he may not have had as much before: finesse.
And the three together? I think for many years critics, and even some fans, have thought that they should hang it up - they're too old. But if they feel young, why should the age matter? If they still have the desire, the chops, the creative drive, and the energy, why should they stop? It's up to them and only them. I for one will never write them off again, because they keep proving me wrong. Clockwork Angels is a masterpiece, one of their best records ever. We wouldn't have it if they listened to those saying they should hang it up.
I think I can sum up Rush in one line that Neil wrote in the song "Prime Mover" off of Hold Your Fire:
The point of the journey, is not to arrive
As for me, I'll continue enjoying the journey...
For some amazing photos from the aforementioned show, be sure to visit the Rush tribute web site Cygnus-X1.net