Without question, for 41 years now, the band called Rush has been the ultimate blend of the best of 1970s British progressive rock (Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull) and British hard rock of the same period (Led Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple). Unfairly classified as heavy metal, the Canadian trio routinely mixed the edgier side of Zeppelin and Sabbath with the lengthier passages by their prog rock counterparts, to often stirring effect.
On their recent tour, culminating in the August 1 show at the Los Angeles Forum, the final stop on their 40th anniversary campaign (it is actually the 41st anniversary of the trio as a recording and performing act), they take their fans back to their 1970s roots in a two-set performance which starts with the newest material, from 2012’s Clockwork Angels, and continues in reverse chronological order, with select tracks from the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, eventually ending with a spirited 1970s collection.
Arguably, what most diehard Rush followers deem as the band’s creative peak is the period when the band first coalesced and most adventurously experimented with their songwriting and musicianship: 1976-1981. Beginning the August 1 second set with two paramount tracks from 1981’s Moving Pictures album, Rush received the biggest response from the audience, ostensibly filled with fans who recalled the album firsthand 34 years ago. Perhaps the band’s most popular song, Tom Sawyer, began the set, followed by Red Barchetta, which had been an alternate to other Moving Pictures songs on the tour. From there, Rush played key tracks from 1980’s Permanent Waves album, including the perennial celebration of their hometown Toronto radio station, the song The Spirit of Radio which has opened many a Rush show over the past 35 years.
Alas, the best was still yet to come. Selecting key tracks from the album 1978’s Hemispheres, 1977’s A Farewell to Kings, and 1976’s 2112 for their first live Rush treatment in many decades was bold, breathtaking, and surreal, given their rare inclusion in live Rush shows since the early 1980s. It is with these three albums that Rush cemented its following, locked in its sound, and aesthetically became the band which has been beloved since. In a sense, returning to this material for what could be the band’s final major tour was the ultimate statement on who Rush are as artists and how their singular synthesis of classic British rock arrived at something that was at once an homage to the greatness of prog and hard rock’s founding fathers and simultaneously made the band wholly original.
Playing the key opening passages from Hemispheres (Cygnus X-1 Book II), blending right into Cygnus X-1 from A Farewell to Kings, Rush demonstrated their earliest tendencies to master progressive music with intergalactic lyrical sensibilities and a heavy metal onslaught of virtuoso guitar, bass, and drums. Xanadu, from Kings, may have been the show’s high water mark for longtime fans with its ethereal majesty of otherwordly musical and lyrical themes. The anthemic Closer to the Heart from Kings was a welcomed return to a one-time concert staple that had dropped off of recent set lists. Playing most of the renowned first album-side “song” from 2112, with that influential titular track’s mystical science-fiction bent, Rush reinforced to fans what first made them widely popular with an international audience.
In the encore section of the show, Rush returned to their first three albums, playing obscure tracks while reducing their trademark stage, light and pyrotechnics show to its earliest mid-1970s incarnation when they were an opening act for bands such as Kiss and played tiny gymnasiums in the Toronto area with amplifiers set upon classroom chairs.
When Rush closed the show, in one of their rare instances of onstage bonding, drummer Neil Peart, likely the greatest drummer ever in rock music, joined bandmates Alex Lifeson (guitar) and Geddy Lee (bass, keyboards, and vocals) at centre stage for a group bow and possibly final goodbye. For many reasons, this was a tremendous moment in the life of the band and its diehard fans, especially seeing the trio, huddled together, saluting the crowd, with the notoriously shy and reclusive Peart right in the middle.
With all three members now in their early 60s, and the days of 200 concerts a year with back-to-back one night stands long gone, Rush tours, this one included, have gotten shorter, have been divided by an intermission, and have had gigs spaced out between them. As such, the dynamics of the band have changed, and their fan following, though as strong and wide as ever, understands and has accepted this new relationship. That said, with Clockwork Angels representing some of their most ambitious recorded music in decades, one hopes that the band will continue to at least record new material and play select live dates if not embark on massive full tours.
Los Angeles, California