Still in the limelight
Rejuvenated hard-rock legends Rush spark the Autowest Ampitheatre
The last time I saw arena rock veterans Rush, it was almost 20 years ago, and I wasn’t old enough to drive to the show. I went mainly to impress an older, 16-year-old girl. My friend has since passed away, but the loud trio we first saw together is still around. So, in hopes of sparking some nostalgic reverie for old high-school music and a much-missed friend, I made the jaunt to Autowest Amphitheatre last week on a blustery, cool night for “An evening with Rush"—and was not disappointed.
Having just released its 25th album, Vapor Trails, Rush is in the midst of a triumphant return to live performance after a five-year hiatus due to the deaths of drummer Neil Peart’s wife and daughter in sudden, unrelated incidents. I went to last week’s show hoping it might hold some kind of hidden profundity—at least more than your usual rock spectacle—but what I found, like a “Duh, McFly” knock to the head, was that’s the whole point! Their idiosyncratic, spectacle-filled rock is made for escapism.
This time around, Rush was still an impeccably professional stage group, though obviously rejuvenated and at a high level; the trio of power-laden perfectionists were clearly focused on having fun, doing what they do best and rocking in the face of tragedy.
Around 8.p.m., the band took the stage flanked by three massive film screens. Rush has always had an eye-candy filmic aspect to its live performances, and this night’s computer animations of dragons and cartoons were even more dumb-downed and juvenile than 20 years ago. They also had three washing machines on stage full of revolving clothes that ran the whole evening (don’t ask me—somebody, somewhere got their quarters’ worth). When the lights lowered, a dollar bill appeared onscreen with the trio’s faces superimposed over the Three Stooges, then a moment of vaudeville music and BOOM! The classic opening of the spacey “Tom Sawyer” (with famous accompanying hi-hat) kicked off the first set to the feral roar of the packed house of 30-40-year-old rockers, most wearing Rush T-shirts.
While Peart and guitarist Alex Lifeson looked a bit older and “filled out,” the wailing Lee looked and sounded the same as 20 years ago (minus the bad ‘80s hair that plagued so many of us), and he’s still got that Middle Earth boatman vibe going. As the trio tore through an inclusive mix of new and old favorites, it was obvious that these guys still love what they do. Lee plucked away intricate bass lines during favorites like “YYZ” and “Freewill,” riding his high thigh kicks all over stage. Lifeson filled the night with expansive, guitar-tech wash and economical solos, and the stoic drummer Peart thrilled everyone with his near-biblical skills on his massive set, attacking rototoms like an eight-armed sushi chef on meth (his African-jazz-influenced drum solo in the second set was worth the admission alone).
The second set held most of the Vapor Trails material, but it wasn’t until the end that old-school fans got what they wanted. After performing “Overture” and “Temples of Syrinx,” from 2112, Lee and Lifeson sat together and played a rare acoustic duet before going electric for a perfect version of the classic “Limelight” ("living on a lighted stage/approaches the unreal/for those who think and feel") followed by “La Villa Stangiato” and closing with the catchy FM radio staple, “Spirit of the Radio.”
All night I drooled over the classic guitars that Lifeson went through like throw-away diapers for every song—the Fenders, the Les Paul, the Paul Reed Smiths—but when he pulled out his old white Gibson ES-355 for the encore, I knew we were in for a treat.
“Let’s take a trip to the Tomb of Hades,” Lee began before busting into a ("dude, kick-ass") “By-Tor and the Snow Dog"—jammed out and followed by another early favorite, ("dude, no way!") “Working Man.” When all was sung and done, the thousands filing out seemed thoroughly appeased, especially the guys speedily duck-walking to the bathrooms while repeating, “They fucking rock” and “Unbelievable!” above each others’ ringing ears.
Overall, I had fun just sitting there, taking notes (which I hardly ever end up using), downing a couple $6 Buds, and standing up to rock out once in awhile whenever I felt the presence of an old friend smiling.