Saturday, July 12, 2008

Rediscovering Rush: Musings after a July 11 concert in Manchester, NH

Any escape might help to smooth

The unattractive truth

But the suburbs have no charms to soothe

The restless dreams of youth

--Rush, Subdivisions

At one time I was unbelievably passionate about Rush, the venerable Canadian progressive rock trio known for such hits as "Tom Sawyer," "Spirit of Radio" and "Limelight." But in the last few years my ardor had cooled quite a bit and I had largely stopped listening to them.

Given my age (35), upbringing (a suburb of Boston), and college education, it's no surprise that I was a huge fan of Rush back in the 1980's and 1990's. Although they attract all manner of fans, they seem to have a special appeal to folks who enjoy thought-provoking lyrics and technical musicianship--the nerd crowd, in short. For a long time Rush had the honor of being among my top three favorite bands (Iron Maiden and KISS sharing those other spots).

Rush put out a string of terrific albums over a 20-year span of their career, starting with their 1974 self-titled release all the way up until (in my opinion) 1993's Counterparts. But I wasn't nearly as impressed with later efforts Test for Echo (1996) or Vapor Trails (2002). When Rush released Snakes and Arrows in 2007 I had pretty much stopped caring and didn't even bother to try and listen to it.

But there was more to my recent separation from Rush than just a cool reaction to their recent albums. I like bands with which I can form an emotional attachment, and for a while Rush was the soundtrack of my life and spoke the messages I wanted to hear. I was the surburban teenager under pressure to "be cool or be cast out," and the young man with big dreams and tough realities leaving college:

Proud swagger out of the schoolyard, waiting for the world's applause, rebel without a conscience, martyr without a cause

But as the years went on I started to lose interest in Rush's message. Even their indisputably great albums--2112, Moving Pictures, Permanent Waves--were no longer getting play on my CD player. I was working, getting married, having kids, etc., and I no longer felt as connected to the music. Or perhaps it was simple overload and burnout, having listened the heck out of their albums for years. In July of 2002 I saw Rush on the Vapor Trails tour (my seventh Rush concert) and recall feeling afterwards that, while the show was good, I had seen these guys enough. My Rush CD collection soon developed a layer of dust.

Fast forward six years to 2008. A couple weeks ago my wife bought me a surprise pair of birthday tickets for a July 11 show at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, NH. I had no idea the tickets were even coming and I had even less idea how I'd react to seeing Rush in concert once again.

As a concert-going geek (who has had to cut way back on the number of shows I attend due to soaring prices and competing interests), normally when I attend a show I like to "build up" to it by listening to the band's albums and watching video of concert performances, videos, etc. But I didn't have the luxury of doing that with Rush: I was on vacation until July 7 without a computer (no Youtube) and my Rush CDs were all at home. My birthday falls on June 26 and barely two weeks later, the show was here. My geeky routine was all out of whack.

But it didn't matter. On Friday my wife and I were headed into the show and suddenly, although I had no expectations, I felt the excitement begin to build. Perhaps it was the contagion of the enthusiastic mass of concert-goers all heading inside, but I soon realized that it was just the simple happiness of seeing Rush in concert once again.

I'm glad to say that I was not disappointed by the show. Although I didn't know any of the Snakes and Arrows material, Rush sounded great, and I actually became a fan of the Main Monkey Business, an incredible instrumental off of their new album.

But the audience's strongest reaction came during their classic material. The best song of the night for me was "Subdivisions," which the band absolutely nailed. As Geddy Lee hit the familiar opening synth notes one of the three on-stage projection screens zoomed in on his hands, another showed an overhead of Neil Peart's drum kit, and a third focused on Alex Lifeson's guitar work. The net effect was tremendous. Damn, I thought, these guys can still play.

Speaking of Lifeson, I left the concert more impressed with his ability than ever before. Rush is known its great musicianship, with Peart getting the lion's share of the credit, and for good reason--he's probably the best rock drummer ever. Likewise, Lee has gotten many props for his bass playing over the years. Lifeson seems to get lost in the shuffle. But on this night I thought he owned the show, playing some tremendous solos and riffs, switching effortlessly between acoustic guitars and lutes and other stringed instruments back to his electric, all while distorting and changing with a mass of petals at his feet. He was into it and on top of his game.

Overall, I must say that Lee, Lifeson, and Peart remain the most talented musicians that I have ever seen in concert. Iron Maiden is my favorite band, and I've seen dozens of other acts, but no one can play like Rush. Monkey Business and later YYZ were a stunning reminder of their talent. It never ceases to amaze how a three-man act can produce such amazing music. Peart did his usual virtuoso solo, and even my wife--a casual fan of Rush at best--was floored.

The only annoying bit of the night was the dork behind me who insisted on yelling out all of the upcoming song titles right at the end of the previous song, serving as a serious spoiler since I hadn't checked the set list prior to the show. I do miss the pre-internet days when concert setlists were hard to find and you often went in blind. I felt like turning around and telling him (in an extremely sarcastic voice,) "Geez, you must be a fucking psychic!"

Just today I found myself listening to Rush in my car again, cranking up Presto, one of my favorite albums. While I might not feel the same personal connection to their music, I did find myself enjoying it for the incredible musicianship and artistry. And you know what? That's good enough for me.

Long live Rush!


Falze said...

Glad you enjoyed it, even though they've got a LOT of S&A material on the list.

I must admit, a jerk yelling out the next song every time is a new one. I often (several times per day, lately) find myself asking "What's wrong with people??"

Cool birthday gift :D And don't fear S&A - it's a better listen than Magic Kingdom For Sale!

Chris said...

Sounds awesome, Brian. S&A isa pretty good CD (I almost said "Album"), and yes, that instrumental on it is great. I haven't seen RUSH in concert in many years, but I see I should have checked them out this last time!

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for stopping by guys. Yes, it was a good show though very Snakes and Arrows heavy (6-7 songs, I think). Definitely better than Magic Kingdom For Sale: Sold, although I've derived more enjoyment from some dinner menus than Kingdom.

Anonymous said...

Hey Murph, I couldn't agree more. At one time I was probably the biggest Rush fan you could find. i even kicked Joe Miller's ass at Rush Trivia many a nights in college. Their recent albums are good and usually have two or three great songs but they will never compare to the glory days (Fly by Night to Moving Pictures). But I still do get in Rush "moods" now and again and will break out the old stuff. Gately

Falze said...

Forgot to mention that I heard Rush on the radio the other day, after the song the morning crew is talking about the band (this is just before they played locally for the 2nd time this tour) and one of the DJs is going on and on about what a huge fan he is, he's one of these Rush geeks, they're so awesome, etc etc...and then, of course, he refers back to the song they just played and goes, "Alright, Rush, awesome, that was 'Spirit of the Radio'! Yeah!"


Brian Murphy said...


Thanks for stopping in. I can't believe you beat Miller in a Rush trivia contest--did the loser have to buy a large cheese from Pizza World?


Yeah, that's pretty lame. Almost as lame as "that guy" who says he's a big Rush fan because he loves Tom Sawyer. Then you ask:

"What other Rush songs do you like?"

"Other songs? Hmm... well, I like them all. Each is... ah... appealing in its own way." Fraud.

Anonymous said...