The spirit of RUSH can, in a sense, be read on the stoic face of drummer Neil Peart. Throughout last night’s three-hours-and-change marathon set, his visage was unchanging, a chiseled topographic map of sheer concentration and determination, neither smiling nor grimacing even while his arms and body accomplished unimaginable feats of drum action. Peart is an odd drummer god: unlike, say, Keith Moon or Stewart Copeland or John Bonham, who all used drumming as a method of expression and sheer exuberant outlandishness, the quiet Canadian doesn’t blow out his momentum in bursts of explosive crashing, but rather methodically crushes each drumming hurdle like a long-distance runner, eyes constantly aimed at the distant horizon.
An illustrative comparison: a few weeks ago, I saw Mötley Crüe; at that show, drummer Tommy Lee had a built-in contraption that swung him, while on the throne, upside-down and around and around, all in the service of indulgently demonstrating the insanity of his approach to the kit. Peart, at last night’s capacity show at the Garden, also has a hydraulically swivelling set, equally kitted out with a bazillion little toms and cymbals and chimes-- but Peart’s only rotated when he needed to switch to an alternate kit for certain elaborate sections of songs that, for instance, required a gentler touch, or the use of electronic MIDI-triggered drums. Rush are often labeled as “thinking man’s rock”-- maybe a misnomer, but there is something Rodin-esque in the way that Peart’s attack, relentless and precise to the nth degree, is also so pensive and measured.
Rush have spent most of their four decades of existence being mocked by mainstream music’s hoi polloi for representing the grossest excesses of prog rock-- and while that may have been true in the mid-70s, when they would grace the world’s stages in matching kimonos whilst plying 20-minute odes to literature and Objectivist theorems, it is undeniable, here in the year 2012, that it has been a good 30 years since Rush has made music of that type. In truth, Rush have long since shed any of the quote-unquote embarrassing traits of 70s prog, their then-signature sound completely remade into a new mold that is slick, measured, intricate, and oddly melodic and thought-out. To put it another way: if you take a random song from anything that Rush has released since the mid-80s, you’re going to find more sonic similarities to the music of, say, The Church than to an ELP or Gentle Giant epic.
Most epic part of the show: the men's room line
Rush’s current tour and its setlist seems intent on making that point eminently clear: the band didn’t unleash a single tune from a pre-1980 record until they launched into “2112” at the absolute close of their 28-song set. Instead, they presented a kind of alternative Rush history where the “Xanadu” days never happened, and let the proto-new-wave anthemic whoomph of their last three decades speak for itself. Their opener, “Subdivisions”, is perhaps one of the prime exemplars of this aesthetic: more synth throb than guitar crunch, with melodic songcraft and an underlying melancholia lending a weight to Peart’s conceptually ponderous lyrical lurch. From 1980 on, Rush not only dove into the world of synth-led rock, they foregrounded their tunesmithery over all else. It kind of leveled out the highs of their prior achievements, smoothing out the rough edges, but it also meant that every Rush release would benefit from close listening. Which is kind of why Rush is often better in a live setting, when you are forced to really pay attention to the details of the arrangements, the way everything just clicks into place just so.
After a long period satisfying an itch for Power Windows deep cuts that absolutely noone but the most rabid Rush-head knew needed to be scratched, the band whumped down a nine-song string of tunes from their latest, this spring’s Clockwork Angels. If, on record, Angels came across as more of the solid-but-not-earthshattering fare we’ve all come to expect from recent Rush, in a live setting this stuff was crushing, from the epic soar of the title track to the thudding attack of “Headlong Flight” (the latter of which features a breakdown that is really reminiscent of mid-70s Rush highlight “Bastille Day”). And when it wasn’t crushing, it was thoughtful and oddly beautiful, like “The Wreckers”, a tune that wouldn’t sound out of place on a playlist populated by, I dunno, R.E.M. or the Killers.
That said, the mood in the room lit up considerably when the opening plinks indicated that we were about to be bombarded with Moving Pictures-era classic “YYZ”-- because really, some good old odd-time-signature capital-P Prog is what a massive rock audience wants and craves. It’s worth noting that between “YYZ” and the sheer mania that greeted the assault that was “2112”, some of the most ecstatic reception of the evening was for instrumentals-- opportunities for the faithful to really get down to what they came to this show for: air drumming to some of rock’s knottiest drumwork. But such is the understood agreement of the Rush fan with their favorite band that they are willing to wait through several hours of music that doesn’t not exactly beg for fists in the air to get to the awaited moments of transcendence. A Rush fan may have to wade through all that and more (and endless men’s room lines) if it means the opportunity to be part of one of rock’s most rewarding musical cults.
The Big Money
The Analog Kid
Where's My Thing? (with drum solo)
Seven Cities of Gold
Dreamline (with drum solo)
Red Sector A
The Spirit of Radio
2112, Parts I, II, and VII
Note: I originally had the song "Headlong Flight" incorrectly identified in this post as "Headlong Attack"-- apologies and thanks for the sharp eyes, commenters! A few years ago I got the opportunity to talk to Sir Geddy for the Phx, and was so nervous that my first question was about the band's then-new album, which I erroneously identified as Snakes and Ladders-- oof; Geddy was kind enough to not correct me, and I didn't notice until the transcription. Anyway, thanks for the correction guys-- nothing gets by Rush fanatics!>> DBROCKMAN@PHX.COM :: @THEBIZHASLANDED