Rush has won the war of attrition that they never set out to fight. After years of ignoring indifference and ridicule from the music press and mainstream audiences, the Canadian power trio, bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer Neil Peart, are now members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and just graced the cover of Rolling Stone for the first time in their decades long career. But the very real notion that Rush is rock royalty was not news to the 18,000 plus faithful that packed Madison Square Garden Monday night.
What has been news of late is that this 40th Anniversary “R40” tour is very likely Rush’s last effort “of this magnitude,” according to the band. All three members are in their sixties, and while Lee has stated publicly that he’s up for continuing, Lifeson is battling arthritis (a death sentence for guitarists) and Peart (who has long expressed an ambivalence for the touring life) has a new family at home in Los Angeles and longs to be with them full time.
All of that has been set aside for the moment, and Rush is using this victory lap to empty the tank by plowing through two and a half hours of their very best material. Never ones to shy away from “the big idea,” the theme on the R40 tour features Rush in reverse, plucking tracks from nearly every record in their catalogue and playing them in counter-chronological order. Their always elaborate stage set up and light show follows suit, going from lasers and video to the bare minimum as the show builds backwards through time.
Rush started off with passion and power, but had a hard time connecting to every corner of the room with “The Anarchist” (from the acclaimed Clockwork Angels, 2012) The second tune, “Headlong Flight” (also from Clockwork Angels) was explosive and actually evokes Rush’s earlier sound with driving odd time rhythms and roaring guitar work. Then it was a brisk trip through some other decent cuts that culminated in “Subdivisions” (Signals, 1982), a strong first set closer and a portal into Rush’s most potent past.
It seems as though Rush has spent the last 20 years of their career trying to outrun the first twenty. With a focus on songwriting and production, “modern” Rush got away from the epic, twisting, turning mammoth set pieces that made them prog rock heroes in the first place. But the second set was about embracing their roots, not erasing them.
Even classics like “Tom Sawyer” (Moving Pictures, 1981) and the “The Spirit of Radio” (Permanent Waves, 1980) played like a warm up to what followed. Long known for their individual musical chops, the band melded into one organic group mind for the rarely heard and highly revered “Jacob’s Ladder” (Permanent Waves). By turns dramatic and ethereal, Peart found the deepest of the deep in the 5/4 to 6/4 groove as Lee and Lifeson came together center stage (as they often do) to mind meld and weave their thick, snakelike sound.
By the time the boys got into their epic musical journeys with parts of Hemispheres (1978) and a majestic treatment of “Xanadu” (A Farewell to Kings, 1978), replete with old school double neck guitars, band and crowd seemed inseparable as they basked in “the mist and the magic.” Rush’s signature opus “2112” closed the second set with fury.
They soon returned to a stripped bare stage resembling a high school gymnasium gig and ripped through an encore of some ancient nuggets that ended back at the beginning with a frenetic version of “Working Man” (from the eponymous debut album Rush, 1974).
When the lights came up and “The Professor” emerged from his drums, waved to the crowd, flashed a rare smile and ran for the backstage tunnel, it felt as though Peart was taking the entire Rush experience with him – forever.
Or was he leaving it all behind?