July 8th, 2013
I went with a couple friends last week to see Rush at Summerfest in Milwaukee. It had been just over 23 years since the three of us saw the band for the first time at Alpine Valley and on the drive east I played a recording of that very show. With us was the 9 year-old daughter of one of my friends and on the way there she proclaimed that “Subdivisions” was her favorite Rush song. She also gave us her exegesis on the lyrics to “Force Ten”, another favorite of hers.
It was her lucky day because the band opened with a solid rendition of “Subdivisions”. Despite being 60 or nearly so, Alex, Geddy, and Neil showed no signs of slowing down. Having dispatched his tubular bells, chimes, and triangle to storage, Peart seems to bring more and more drums along with every tour and they all get used. The first set continued by tapping into the rich back catalog of songs from the 1980s (post-Moving Pictures) through the early 90s. “Force Ten” was much more powerful than its studio incarnation and included a bit of jamming to boot. Fans of Power Windows were treated to three songs from that album. A raucous “The Big Money” seemed more relevant than ever with Wall Street escaping prosecution for taking down the world economy, the LIBOR scandal, etc. It was joined by the deeper cuts “Grand Designs” and “Territories”. Roll the Bones was represented by “Bravado” with its haunting chorus and the instrumental “Where’s My Thing?” which featured the first of three drum solos.
The years 1982-1991 are generally considered something of a low point in Rush’s history. Lifeson moved away from heavy riffing and instead went for more textures. Synthesizers came to fore and influences from New Wave to reggae moved Rush’s sound away from its heavy, Led Zeppelin influenced beginnings. While I had heard and loved songs like “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit of Radio”, I really got into Rush just after the release of Hold Your Fire and so have a real soft spot for their mid to late-80s stuff. Power Windows, Hold Your Fire, and Presto are very different albums compared to 2112, Farewell to Kings, and Moving Pictures, but they are still excellent. Geddy Lee’s bass is still playing melodic parts, Neil Peart’s drumming remained anything but simple, and Alex Lifeson’s guitar work was perhaps a bit subdued but it still gave the songs muscle and filled out the sonic palette. Songs like “Mission” and “The Pass” have a certain beauty and emotional resonance that were only hinted at in something like “Entre Nous”.
The Clockwork Angels String Ensemble took their seats at the back of the stage for the second set. Here the bulk of their latest album, Clockwork Angels, got an airing. Clockwork Angels is a great album which combines the heavy riffing of the band’s early days with their later melodic sensibility. “Headlong Flight” and the title track were full of manic energy that belied all the grey hair and wrinkles while “The Wreckers” and “The Garden” were slower and more reflective. The former’s sweeping choruses and the latter’s more delicate, sparser instrumentation were perfect vehicles for the strings. The ensemble were able to find spaces in the songs which probably would have been filled by synthesizers in the past but they added a more epic and organic feel here.
The strings stayed for a couple more 80s tunes, “Manhattan Project” and “Red Sector A” as well as “YYZ” before heading offstage. The set ended with “The Spirit of Radio”. It didn’t take long for the guys to come out for an encore which ended up being two: “Tom Sawyer” and an abbreviated “2112″. “Tom Sawyer” got the crowd singing. Oddly enough, I didn’t see any air drumming near me.
Before the intermission, Geddy Lee announced they were going to take a break because they were old. But you wouldn’t know it from their performance. Well, Lee can’t hit those high notes quite like he used to but, otherwise, it was a lengthy show – nearly two and a half hours and full of energy. The band looked like they were having a good time and, much to their credit, they featured a good chunk of the new album which it highly deserved.