Rush doesn’t shy away from the new.
On the shuttle bus filled with Rush fanatics clutching the programs and many t-shirts they picked up at the merch table, lines were drawn in the sand.
“I just about lost my mind when they played ‘Cygnus X-1,’” said one portly gent to no one in particular. “And you gotta know that half the crowd there had no idea what was going on. They’re all, like, ‘I know “Tom Sawyer,” but…”
He didn’t even need to finish the sentence. We, the captive audience with ears buzzing after spending three hours in the Moda Center, were supposed to join in his disdain for those lesser folks who haven’t spent their lives obsessing over every last note of Hemispheres or could air drum every last fill from the Canadian mainstays’ most recent album Clockwork Angels.
Those are the kinds of fans that Rush has created over their 40+ years together: the men and women with the Starman tattoos or the vanity license plates that they carry with them to the show, the folks who feel no compunction dropping $200 to make sure they have every variation of the t-shirts available for this tour. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Nor is there anything wrong with people who just came to hear “Subdivisions,” “The Spirit of Radio,” and “Closer To The Heart.” Rush welcomes one and all to come worship at their feet.
My fandom for Rush lies somewhere in the middle. In high school, friends encouraged me to check them out, and I wound up picking up their then-most recent album, Roll The Bones. By the time the rapping started in the title track, I shut off the cassette and never played it again. For years afterward, I was merely bemused by Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart. I would enjoy their songs when I stumbled upon them on the radio, but with a layer of ironic remove between myself and their prog-pop.
What made me a convert was the one-two punch of seeing them live for the first time and then catching Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage, the documentary about their long career and the deep friendships that have kept the band thriving for decades. I fell for their goofy offstage personas and marveled at their onstage chemistry. The spectacle of the arena rock experience fell to the background as I got lost in the knotted up structures and sharp hooks of “Presto” and “Big Money.”
In the years since that fateful month, I’ve called myself a fan. I grab used LPs when I can find them and can safely say that Clockwork Angels is a strong, deeply wrought concept album that will hopefully get its due. But I don’t have a room full of memorabilia, nor do I know every last detail of the band’s gear. I know enough to be dangerous, and enough that I was really excited to catch the Portland date of what might be Rush’s final North American tour.
I’m also enough of fan to fully delight in how well-constructed the show was. The setlist was an overview of the trio’s entire history together, played in reverse chronological order: they kicked off with three songs from Clockwork Angels and sent us all into the night with the chords of “Working Man” (from the band’s 1974 self-titled debut) echoing in our skulls. And as they’ve always done, the trio played for both the casual fan and the obsessives. They knocked out the “hits,” while also tearing through almost all of side one of 2112 as well as late period fare like “One Little Victory” (from 2002’s Vapour Trails) and “Animate” (from 1993’s Counterparts). They even dared to truck out “Roll The Bones,” complete with a video of some of their famous fans—Peter Dinklage, Jason Segel, Les Claypool, and the cast of Trailer Park Boys—lip syncing the rap section.
What came across most strongly over the course of three hours was how Rush has, since 1975, bucked the odds completely. They’ve had the same line up for 40 years and have seen their fanbase grow (or at least stay steady) in all that time. But most importantly, they’ve held themselves to a high enough standard that even their latter day albums are good-to-great, and they give their all to their live shows. They may move around a little more slowly, and Geddy may have lost a lot of high end from his voice, but they don’t fuck around. Lifeson’s guitar solos are still filled with grit, fury, and passion (his work on “Red Barchetta” and the coda to “Working Man” was particularly great) and Peart is still as good as any drummer could hope to become. As a unit, they attacked and embraced every note with authority and consistency, even as Lifeson and Lee switched to new guitars with each song.
Sure, the casual fan might have been left scanning their Facebook walls as they waited gamely through the first hour to hear something recognizable—that would have likely been “Subdivisions,” which closed out the first set—but, again, these three have been at this for four decades. They can be forgiven a little indulgence for themselves and the super fans as they trolled through the last 20 years of their catalog.
“Indulgence” might be the wrong word to use. It never felt like they were catering to their own whims or folks like my fellow bus rider. It’s more a matter of confidence. These three men know, on some level, how good they are and how good they’ve got it. They know that they can sell every song they play, even if the listener is hearing it for the first time. That’s why, on their last tour, they could spend the bulk of the second hour of their show playing a huge chunk of Clockwork Angels. Unlike every single other band that came up at the same time as they did, Rush doesn’t shy away from the new. So that even if you walk into the stadium or arena or amphitheater not knowing what’s going on, you’ll likely walk out wanting to learn more.