Musical Interlude: Rush in St. Louis

In early 1979 my Uncle Ernie took my cousin and me to our first Rush concert.  The Toronto trio were in the middle of their “Tour of the Hemispheres” run.  I wasn’t yet 14.  Endless listenings of Rush’s “Hemispheres” and “A Farewell to Kings” had led me to conclude that KISS, my first musical obsession, was simply too childish any longer.  My uncle didn’t agree.  After the closing notes of “In the Mood,” I asked him what he thought of the show.  He said that the songs were too long and it sounded like the singer had a rubber band around his balls.  He preferred the KISS show he took us to a few months earlier.  Apparently, his ideal bass players breathed fire and spat blood; they did not belt out high octave lyrics inspired by Ayn Rand.

It’s been more than 30 years since that first show.  I’m now older than my uncle was then.  There have been periods in those 30 old years that I drifted away from Rush.  “Moving Pictures” initiated the first spell.  “Moving Pictures” is considered by many to be Rush’s masterpiece.  It contains radio staples like “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight,” and “YYZ” earned the band their first Grammy Nod for Best Rock Instrumental.  (The Police’s “Behind the Camel,” a totally forgettable piece of album filler, took home the golden gramophone.)  But I was still young and rebellious, and a bit put off by all the radio play the album got.  I felt that the band had “sold out.”  I still went to see them in Kansas City, spending the night on the sidewalk in front of a ticket outlet to score good seats.  (Yeah, that’s what we had to do before internet sales.) I continued to buy their albums, and saw a few shows in the 80s, but for the most part I had turned “dirt twirler” and relied on the Grateful Dead for my live musical experiences.  In the meantime, Rush chugged along.  In 1992 they released “Roll the Bones,” their most successful album since “Signals.”  This album contains two great songs (“Bravado,” “Ghost of a Chance”) and two good songs (“Dreamline,” “You Bet Your Life”).  I found the rest of it unlistenable.  I didn’t bother buying their next two albums until I found them at a used cd shop.  By then Neil Peart’s wife and daughter had died, and it looked as if Rush would be no more.

But then there was the comeback.  Rush released “Vapor Trails” in 2002.  I caught them in Cincinnati, at first astonished they were playing an amphitheater.  Outside??? Rush?  It was my first Rush show since the “Hold Your Fire” tour.  That had been a pretty lackluster performance.  But 16 years after that, the boys played with a vengeance, skipping hits like “The Trees” and “Subdivisions” to play lesser known songs like “The Pass” and “Beneath the Sun and Moon.”  I was blown away.  The shows had stretched into 2 sets, and seemed to contain far more energy than other shows I had seen.  I was hooked again.

So I didn’t surprise myself that when tickets went on sale for the “Time Machine” tour, I was online and ready to pounce on good seats.  I even waited for the announcement of the tour schedule before I made plans for my annual vacation abroad.  I was just as excited to see them at 45 than I was at 13.  So last night girlfriend Katie and I drove the 100+ miles to see Rush in St. Louis.

Did they disappoint?  Get serious.  Like previous tours, Rush dug into their deep catalog for lesser known songs.  These are the songs that make the casual stand sit down, but fans like me stand up.   They whipped out two they hadn’t performed before this tour: “Faithless,” from Snakes and Arrows, as well as the title track from “Presto.”  Other first set gems included “Stick it Out” and “Marathon.”  Geddy Lee was on fire, shredding his bass on “Marathon” and “Leave that Thing Alone!”  The always great Neil Peart added new, engaging flourishes to “Time Stands Still,” a song that many Rush fans are not terribly fond of.

For many, the highlight of this tour was the complete rendering of the “Moving Pictures” album.  As I was expecting, they opened the second set with “Tom Sawyer,” and played the rest of the album in order.  While six of the seven songs from the album have been played frequently in recent tours, “The Camera Eye” hadn’t been in the set list since the “Signals” tour.  Rush fans have been clamoring for it in online polls for years.  Clocking in at over 10 minutes, it was the longest song of the night, and really the last traditionally “long” song the band recorded.  When Rush appeared on “The Colbert Report” a few years ago, the host joked about the length of the songs, even lying on his desk with a blanket and feigning that is was bed time while Rush played “Tom Sawyer” behind him.  While it was true that Rush regularly recorded 10+ minute songs, that’s a thing of the past.  Looking back on it, “The Camera Eye” was a last hurrah.  Last night was the first time I had heard it in any form in probably 20 years.  Members of the band had reported that it was not a song they liked to play, and that’s why it had disappeared from their set lists for so long.

Couldn’t tell that from last night.  Alex Lifeson clearly had a blast playing it.  Maybe he was acting for the crowd?  Doesn’t matter.  The great thing about Rush is they are now, at least, very much aware of their core fans.  They take chances playing new material.  (On the “Snakes and Arrows” they played 9 songs from the album.  How many bands still do that?)  And as I said before, they have no problems ditching well known standards for deep album cuts.  This is a change from the old days, when their set lists were incredibly predictable.  Said standards often come back, like, surprisingly last night, “Closer to the Heart” and “Working Man.”  Both songs, however, were substantially rearranged.  “Working Man” was the oldest song in the set.  The first two choruses had a reggae bent before the song tore into the instrumental bridge that contained Lifeson’s best solo of the night.  Even “La Villa Strangiato” (a standard that had been dropped from the last tour), maybe my single favorite Rush song, contained a bizarre Polka influenced beginning that left me initially scratching my head in confusion.

The night also featured two new songs, “Caravan” and “BU2B,” both available now for digital download.  Both are great songs, and Rush fans like me are looking forward to the new album that will feature them.  Better yet?  Next year’s promised tour.   (Katie has two requests, however: first, that you don’t play the closest show to her the night before she has a 9am class, and two, that you bring back the giant rabbits from the “Presto” tour.) More than 30 years down the road, and Rush is better than they’ve ever been.  They might be starting to show their age, but Geddy Lee can still hit the high notes, Alex Lifeson’s solos will make your eyeballs bleed, and Neil Peart still beats the living crap out of his drums.  When Rush appeared on “The Colbert Report,” the host’s first question to them was:  “Do you guys ever get tired of being so awesome and kicking so much butt?”

If last night was any indication…No, they’re not.

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