Last night I went to US Airways Center and saw Rush for the eleventh time in my life. While it was not the best concert of theirs that I have seen—nor was it the worst—it was certainly the most unique.
For the uninitiated, Rush (pronounced like it is spelled), is a Canadian rock trio that has been churning out albums since 1974. They reached the height of their popularity in the early 1980s, with hits like “The Spirit of Radio,” “Tom Sawyer,” and “Subdivisions.” But while many people who were only casually aware of them during the Reagan-era think they have faded into obscurity, diehard fans like me know that they never went away—they simply aged gracefully like a fine wine.
Admitting that you’re a Rush fan generally elicits one of three responses: 1) a blank stare from the 99% of people under the age of 36 who have never heard of them; 2) a roll of the eyes from the 99% of women and 92% of men over the age of 36 who immediately stereotype you as a Mountain Dew swigging, Dungeons & Dragons playing, throwback geek who was into computers 15 years before everyone else; or 3) a spontaneous and very enthusiastic air drum display from those unaccounted for above who, like you, knows that Neil Peart is the greatest drummer who ever lived, ever will live, or can ever be created by a group of the world’s top scientists working 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the next 200 years.
While we’re on the topic of Neil, I’ll make my first observation about last night’s concert. To this day I’m always amazed that with the blistering speed at which Neil plays, his hands don’t simply snap off at the wrists and continue feverishly beating upon the drums independent of his arms. I’m pretty sure this is bound to happen one day, and I hope I’m there to witness it. (I don’t think this would faze him, as nothing seems to.)
The other players in the band are Geddy Lee (singer, bassist, and keyboardist) and Alex Lifeson (guitarist, backup vocals, and comedian.) Together, Geddy, Alex, and Neil create a wall of sound at once intense and thought-provoking. They are musical masters who never cease to amaze. And last night, after having seen them on nine previous tours since 1986, they amazed yet again—this time with the inclusion of a string section!
Now in the name of full disclosure I should say that the presence of a string section came as no shock to me. In my role as diehard Rush fan I follow them on Facebook and Twitter, frequently look at their website, and read all the magazine articles about them that I can get my hands on. So I had heard long ago that there would be a string section this time around. But hearing about it and actually experiencing it are two different things. I had no idea what to expect, but in a word—Wow!
And the thing about the “Wow” is that it comes not just from the musical aspect of the string section—though the music was great. The “Wow” comes largely from the off-the-charts energy that these eight musicians brought to the stage.
The string section entered for the second set, which was composed mainly of songs from Rush’s new album, “Clockwork Angels.” (In my opinion their best album in at least 20 years, in case you were wondering.) When they first appeared they were sitting, which is what I would have expected from a string section; but the second the music started they all jumped up and played their instruments standing the entire time. But they didn’t just play—they bopped, and rocked, and head-banged the whole time they were up there. When they didn’t need to play their instruments many of them were passionately thrusting their bows in the air in time with the music. Basically, they were acting like eight rabid fans that were handed violins and cellos and such and told to hang out on the stage with the band. It was an absolute blast to watch, because they were acting exactly as I would act if I were allowed up there. (Well, not exactly as I would act. They were actually playing their instruments well, whereas any effort I made to play a stringed instrument would likely come off sounding like the tortured wails of a dying yak.)
For me, the highlight of the show was the song “Headlong Flight,” from their new album, which is seven minutes of pure adrenaline surging rock. If you can listen to this song without having your pulse rate increase you are, in all likelihood, not actually human. Clearly, the players in the string section are all human, as they were going as ballistic on the stage during this song as the rest of the audience.
The show was not perfect. Yes, I’m a diehard Rush fan, but even within their canon I have likes and dislikes. Of their 165 original songs there are probably about 10 to 15 that I don’t actually like very much. Their set list happened to include five of those. (I mean, what are the odds?)
But that’s okay. Last night was really about hearing them play a bunch of songs from their outstanding, super-stupendous new album; and about watching a rocking string section; and about waiting with bated breath for that elusive moment when Neil’s hands finally declare their total independence from his body. One day, Neil. One day.