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Concert Report: Rush at the Los Angeles Gibson Amphitheater
Rush’s ethos can be summed by the chorus of its recent single “Headlong Flight”: “I can’t stop thinking big.”
Everything is bigger on Rush’s tour for Clockwork Angels, its 19th studio album. For starters, the Canadian trio has broken out of its calcified tradition of playing the same set each night of the tour. This time out, Rush is alternating songs from night to night in its marathon-long three hour shows. (No wonder drummer Neil Peart spends a month rehearsing before the band convenes for tour rehearsals.) Rush has doubled down on the scale of its already impressive set design, light show, video production, and pyrotechnics. Notably, Rush has also added an eight-piece string section to its lineup, the first time it has shared the stage with guest musicians of any sort. But for Rush fans the biggest change of all is that Peart doesn’t just play his one customary drum solo—he does three of them! (That, right there, tells you why even the Augusta Golf Club has more women than a Rush show.)
As usual, the concert began with a humorous overture. A video depicted Rush roadies inflating guitarist Alex Lifeson with a bicycle pump, stretching out bassist-singer Geddy Lee’s neck to loosen his vocal chords, and assembling Neil Peart’s body piece by piece like Frankenstein. It’s a self-deprecating joke by three older men who still possess more stamina than Mt. Everest’s Sherpa climbers.
The Gibson show commenced with “Subdivisions,” “The Big Money,” and “Force 10,” the resounding opening tracks from, respectively, Signals (1982), Power Windows (1985), and Hold Your Fire (1987). Surprisingly, the next four songs were also from the 1980s, an era the band frequently revisited for the remainder of the night. It was the decade in which Rush brought electronic drums and synthesizers to the fore, experimented with reggae and new wave, and wrote songs about the Space Shuttle and the threat of nuclear war. They even wore Miami Vice suits at the time. (Such things were as nifty as a digital watch back then.) But, if Rush’s 1980s albums are often inconsistent and sonically dated, they deserve the thorough re-evaluation Rush gave them. Indeed, Peart’s humanistic lyrics remain ever pertinent and those oft-maligned records contain some of the most dynamic and melodic songs in Rush’s catalog. Case in point: “The Big Money.” Framed by videos of American Dollars and British Pounds, the trio magnified the song’s cresting power chords, TNT drum blasts, deep seams of bass, and rallying cry chorus. It was utterly magnificent. (Speaking of big money, was that really a $700 leather jacket on sale at the merch stand?)
With its chorus of “Look in, to the Eye of the Storm,” “Force Ten” featured video images of a hurricane that looked as if they could have been shot two weeks ago. A newly trim Lifeson changed up the original solo, throttling squeals out of his black Les Paul. Geddy Lee bunny hopped around the stage in delight. Another early highlight was “Territories,” one of five songs that Rush is playing from its often underrated Power Windows album on this tour. When its juggernaut riff kicked in, one feared for the stability of California’s geologic fault lines. Next, the musicians navigated the tricky tempo shifts of “Analog Kid” with aplomb. Lifeson’s fingers spidered across the guitar frets during the fleet solo and the audience roared with delight. Rush even unearthed Reagan-era gems such as “Grand Designs,” “Manhattan Project,” “Red Sector A” and the naggingly catchy “The Body Electric”.
The early part of the show wasn’t entirely flawless. Lee’s vocals briefly dallied with off-pitch notes once or twice and the transitions between the peaks and valleys of “Force Ten” weren’t entirely smooth. But by the time the trio stopped off in the 1990s for the widescreen ballad of “Bravado” and the funk instrumental “Where’s My Thing” (which segued into the first of Peart’s solos), they were well oiled and loose.
After intermission, Rush found a sixth gear. Augmented by the string section, Rush played almost all of Clockwork Angels. Though the album doesn’t exactly break new ground for Rush, it’s their most energized, focused, and enjoyable work in over two decades. Clockwork Angels is based around a sci-fi story by Peart (recently novelized by author Kevin J. Anderson) and the stage design and computer-generated videos echoed the tale’s steampunk backdrop. For example, Lifeson’s amplifiers had been replaced by what appeared to be a trio of gramophone horns. Lee’s stage setup included cylindrical laboratory machinery that included a brain in a jar and a fully functional popcorn maker (the drums provided an apt soundtrack for the popping kernels). Peart was enclosed inside a 360 degree drum kit (it’s a wonder that OSHA hasn’t cited it for a lack of an emergency fire exit). Positioned on a rotating riser, the drum kit was adorned with metallurgical symbols, gleaming brass fittings, and clocks with madly spinning hands. Amid images of airborne Zeppelins, gleaming cities of industry, and ocean-faring steamboats, Rush unleashed a dazzling array of lighting effects, suspended mirrors/video screens, and searing blasts of pyrotechnics and fireworks. (Note to the planning committee of the 2016 Olympics opening ceremony: You could learn a thing or two from these guys.)
On a platform behind the band, the eight cellists and violinists enhanced the chorus of “The Anarchist” with Middle Eastern orchestrations, added heavy metal density to “Seven Cities of Gold,” and laced mournful strains through “The Garden.” The eight orchestral musicians, conducted by David Campbell, were a delight to behold. Dressed in black T-shirts and leather trousers, the octet shimmied in time to the music, struck exaggerated rock star poses during their solos, and raised their bows aloft to the title track lyric, “As if to fly.” But it was Lee, Lifeson, and Peart who held one’s gaze the most.
These three men of August age played with a virtuosity and intensity that probably surpasses that of their younger selves. Peart has been battling the drummer equivalent of tennis elbow, but you wouldn’t know it from the way that his flurried arms ascended the tiered steps of his multi-story drums during the drum solo of “Headlong Flight.” He frequently tossed his sticks into the air and caught them just in time to go into the next beat. On the rare occasion when Peart broke his scowl of concentration for a brief smile, its wattage overshadowed the dazzling light displays. Lifeson was clearly having fun. His guitar ranged from anarchic revolt on “Headlong Flight” to the albatross glide of his classic solo on “The Garden.” And Lee propelled songs such as “Carnies” and “Seven Cities of Gold” with the cut and thrust of his bass. The vocalist can still hit those impossibly high Minnie Mouse notes.
Lee’s best vocal of the night was on “The Garden,” an elegy about the looking back upon the meaning of one’s life. The band knows all about death and loss. In the late 1990s, Peart’s daughter and wife died within a year of each other. In recent years, the band’s publicist Shelley Nott and its official photographer Andrew MacNaughtan have both passed on. Several weeks ago, the 23-year-old son of Rush manager Ray Danniels died unexpectedly. As Peart commented in a recent essay on his website, “Many people cling to the fantasy that an elusive phantom called ‘success’ or ‘wealth’ would bring them freedom from pain. Let me tell you, it does not.” The live performance of “The Garden” was imbued with grace and its lyric, “the treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect,” was deeply affecting.
For the pell-mell finale, Rush returned to its most iconic pieces. “YYZ” was the last song of the night to feature the string section, the instrumental’s riff enhanced by bow-scraped instruments. “Tom Sawyer” never gets old. Its famous drum fill after the guitar solo still sounds as dangerous as a sprint around the rim of a volcano. During the sing-along anthem “Spirit of the Radio,” a camera honed in on Lifeson’s dancing fingers during the central guitar motif.
After the trio launched t-shirts into the crowd with cannons, the concert closed with “2112.” You can bet that people will still be playing the prog-rock opus exactly 100 years from now. On the video-screen overhead, the starman figure from that album’s rear cover was kicked off-screen by the cartoon figure of Stewie from Family Guy. The male fraternity crowd yelled collectively as the trio whipped itself into a frenzied blowout. It’s a wonder that the audience remembered to breathe.
Earlier in the evening, Geddy Lee sang a lyric from “Grand Designs” that states, “So much style without substance/ So much stuff without style/ It’s hard to recognize the real thing/ It comes along once in a while.” The thousands of fans who spilled out of the Gibson amphitheater late at night were in no doubt as to what they had just witnessed.
The Big Money
The Body Electric
The Analog Kid
Where's My Thing?
(short drum solo A)
Set Two with Clockwork Angels String Ensemble
(short drum solo B)
Seven Cities of Gold
Drum Solo (The Precussor)
Red Sector A
The Spirit of Radio
2112 Part I: Overture
2112 Part II: The Temples of Syrinx
2112 Part VII: Grand Finale
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