aNewDomain — A girl at a Rush concert? Sounds oxymoronic, I know. But there were plenty of girls at Rush’s sold-out performance at New York City’s Madison Square Garden last night. My girlfriend (well, legally unofficial wife) was one of them. Another was a girl wearing a shirt that read: Yes, I am a girl. And yes, I speak fluent Rush.
And so did we all. What a show!
It was the finale stop on the band’s R40 tour, a tour I’m concerned about being the band’s last. It’s not just the rumors. The members of Rush are now all in their early 60s. Virtuoso guitarist Alex Lifeson’s got a few health issues — arthritis is one of them. And percussionist/lyric genius Neil Peart has tendinitis. Plus he’s an older father with a small daughter at home.
Lifeson, Peart and singer/electric bassist Geddy Lee, the musicians who comprise Rush, have long said they don’t want Rush to just fade away. They want to be at the top when they’re done. And, judging the NYC Rush concert we attended, that’s exactly where they’re at. The band put on the best concert I’ve ever attended — from any band, in any genre — at Madison Square Garden. A massive, multigenerational crowd of Rush devotees sung along to a band who played as if they were in their 20s again.
Except maybe better.
Rush Traces the Years
Sure, Peart’s latter days pudge was obvious on the multiple close-up screens, and Lifeson didn’t dance around the stage quite as fluidly as he once did, and Lee’s voice no longer has its 1970s feral quality, but … still, those old boys were at their peak on this night.
For those who don’t know by now, the theme of this tour is a countdown that goes backward in time. After the now-customary comical and self-mocking introductory video (which, featured cartoon renditions of the band members and symbolic imagery from throughout their long and storied career), the “R40” curtain went up and the band members ripped into a blistering version of “The Anarchist,” from their latest studio album, 2012’s Clockwork Angels. The attendees roared gloriously at Lifeson’s throbbing, major-chord guitar heroics and the thundering rhythm of the song. (During the 20-minute intermission midway through the three-hour show, there was a Clockwork Angels clock with hands that spun counter-clockwise for thematic emphasis.)
Things only got more intense from there.
Three songs and an instrumental (the brilliant “Main Monkey Business”) later, the band had traveled back to its 2002 Vapor Trails album to do a song that I never cared for musically (although the lyrics are great), “One Little Victory.” But in this live rendition a high energy poured into the song and Lifeson conjured up a guitar solo, departing from the original track. This “One Little Victory” was music to love, 13 years after the original studio recording. The now famous Rush In Rio dragon was even there for it, in video incarnation, to breathe fire on the stage.
Backward in time we all journeyed with the storied band. During the concert there was a permanent wave of activity in the form of stage hands in red jumpsuits, which looked like the movers from the cover of the biggest selling Rush album, Moving Pictures. They continuously remade the stage set while the band played on, reflecting the era of whichever songs were being played.
Lee’s satirical, operational washing machines (standing in for his bass amps) and popcorn maker and Lifeson’s massive wall of Marshall stacks all made appearances throughout the long and glorious night. During the intermission, Peart’s drum kit would even be replaced by a replica of his two-bass-drum, “ergonomically incorrect” kit from the ’70s and early ’80s.
There was no song from the 1996 Test for Echo album, a personal (minor) disappointment. The band also skipped its later-1980s stage, leaping from the early ’90s way back to 1984 and the electronica-heavy Grace Under Pressure album with a blistering rendition of a fan favorite, “Distant, Early Warning.”
Then … a pause in the music for Geddy Lee to address the massed attendees. I had read about the previous show in Newark, NJ (where our car was now parked) — a certain Rush miracle had happened there. It had happened in Toronto, too. And I waited with mingled hope and fear for Lee to say it was about to happen here.
And lo, we were blessed with it.
For only the third time in their history, Rush played the sad, beautiful “Losing It.” This song has always been problematic to play live because it requires a special guest musician, an electric violinist. Yes, a fourth performer had to hold the stage with Rush!
And the one who did was a most appropriate player. Original special guest musician Ben Mink joined the band live in Toronto, but this night, as at the Newark concert, it was Jonathan Dinklage — yes, the musical brother of Peter Dinklage, the actor of “Game of Thrones” fame, who appeared via video as part of the comical rapping section of the song “Roll the Bones” just a couple of songs earlier in the concert.
The ageless “Subdivisions” closed the first set. I noticed that Lifeson seemed to have lost some of his opening fire as the final two or three songs of the set were performed — surely his arthritis flaring up.
Well, after an intermission and another comical, self-mocking video full of outtakes and older snippets, which led to those crazy boys from “South Park” introducing “Tom Sawyer,” it seemed that the guitar virtuoso had been shot up with some pain killers. His playing caught fire again, and he proceeded to rip out the best rendering of that song’s guitar solo that I’ve heard him do in decades.
Lifeson would continue in that beast mode (as they say today) for the rest of the enchanted evening as the band continued to take us backward in time to its heavy metal roots, such as on the song “Jacob’s Ladder,” not played live since the band’s 1980 “Permanent Waves” tour.
Throughout most of the night Lifeson choked from guitars screaming bent notes. He tore whammy-bar induced sounds or pinched harmonics out of every string while invoking his mighty, fourths-built chords and arpeggios, all of which played over or seamlessly blened with the melodic synthesizers. I know of no other guitar player capable of playing like this.
From the start, Peart and Lee rained down ineffably complicated thunder, while Lee’s voice was more soaring and powerful than it has been in over 10 years. It was as if he was pushing his vocals to full throttle in the knowledge that there’s no reason to preserve his voice any longer.
More incredible highlights came as Lifeson’s designed and patented Omega acoustic guitar stand was brought out by the roadies, which let him play the 12-string acoustic guitar on the Renaissance-inspired intro to “Closer to the Heart.” Lifeson hasn’t played any acoustic guitar live since the 2007 tour, and I had been attributing that to his arthritis.
Next, it was time for the Lee and Lifeson double-necked-guitars glory of “Xanadu,” also featuring Neil on Korean temple blocks and his huge, melodic bell tree — played with a heavy mallet.
We went back through the impossibly heavy (for 1976) “Grand Finale” of the band’s breakthrough album, 2112, to hear “Lakeside Park” and “Anthem” played live for the first time since the late 1970s.
The show came to a deafening end with Peart-driven renditions of the pre-Peart songs “What You’re Doing” and “Working Man/Garden Road.” By that time, a glittering, silvery disco ball was hanging over the stage, and a couple of small, boxy amps were set up on a few wooden chairs.
The journey backward was complete. But when we remember the future, the point of the journey — as all Rush fans know — is not to arrive. For anything can happen. Even if major touring is done, I predict more Rush songs to come.
All images by Brant David and Bekkah Henry.