It's taken more than three decades for Rush to refine its approach to stadium rock, and the long gestation period has paid off. The Canadian trio's three-hour set at Red Rocks Monday night showed just how carefully the band has constructed its approach to live music, and just how impressive the resulting show has become. The band's gear, its sense of theatricality, its multi-layered sound design and, obviously, the members' virtuosic musical performances were all in top form.
Every element of the show boasted the marks of years of precision and care, an attention to detail that's only deepened with the band's years on the road. Even with the somewhat muddy sound that resulted from the high volume needed at Red Rocks, the subtleties in the music still came through.
At times, Rush's on-stage routine seemed formalized to a fault. Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart delivered versions of seminal Rush material that followed the album versions virtually note for note. That fidelity was found in live renditions of the band's most commercially viable progressive rock anthems, like "The Spirit of Radio" and "Tom Sawyer," as well as more abstract, theory-heavy performances of the entire Moving Pictures album and dense instrumental flights, like "YYZ."
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But whatever the show lacked in spontaneity, it made up for it in sheer scope. The theatrics weren't limited to the standard fire columns, light shows or coordinated fireworks of most large-scale rock shows. As on all recent Rush tours, the set design and the animated imagery beamed on a giant screen behind the band touted specific themes and undertones, constant cues that added a sense of drama and performance art to the concert.
The repeating visual cues all had to do with time and industry. Video clips shown at the beginning of the show and after the twenty-minute intermission featured Lee, Lifeson and Peart starring in an odd blend of comedy and surrealism. First the three were dressed as Jewish diner patrons and staff; Lifeson wore a hulking fat suit, playing the manager of the fictional band "Rash."
Playing a waiter, Lee spoke about his bar mitzvah and called to a daughter named Kugel. The screen malfunctioned before the clip ended, but the audience still caught sight of a machine called a "Gefilter," a device that summoned Rash and moved them through separate eras and time periods.
The second clip featured a similar emphasis on time travel, with Rush cycling through different iterations as fictional characters played havoc with a time machine. In the clip, the trio played "Tom Sawyer" as caricatures of their '70s selves; as cavemen; as babies; and as apes. Huge props that looked like relics from some Industrial Revolution warehouse served as real-time "Gefilters." A stream of fake sausage emerged from a pipe at one end, and actors would periodically come out to dump food items into the faux machines.
The bizarre scenery served as a framework for an epic set, one that covered the gamut of Rush's storied career. The first set included live versions of 1989's "Presto," 1993's "Stick It Out" and 2007's "Workin' Them Angels." Older material, like 1980's "The Spirit of Radio" and "Free Will," also figured into the first set, as did entirely new material such as "I Was Brought Up to Believe."
The trio offered well-rehearsed, faithful performances during the first half of the concert, following album patterns for the dizzying stretches of modal-based melodies and the dense stints of soaring solos. Lifeson switched between several guitars, favoring Les Pauls, but also put in some work on a Telecaster and even switched instruments for a brief solo on the bazouki. Lee, meanwhile, favored a single bass to coax out his rapid-fire lines, accompaniment that often took on a lead role and reminded the crowd why the bassist played such a formative role in the sound of musicians like Les Claypool.
Peart's drumming was consummate: His massive drum kit offered a vast array of textures and sounds, and his furious attacks typified the best styles of his generation. It's a dense, percussive sound that recalls the work of Peart's contemporary masters like Terry Bozzio, but one that also hints at jazz giants like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa.
As the second set delved deeper into Rush's older catalogue, the band seemed to slightly shrug off the shackles of the recordings and offer some real moments of improvisation and spontaneity. The complete performance of 1980's Moving Pictures and large swaths from 1976's 2112 stayed completely true to the album versions. But such careful re-creations came alongside expansive shows of improvisation from all three bandmembers.
Peart showed an exceptional round of improvisational skill near the end of the second set, using the full scope of his 360-degree drum set. As his circular platform revolved to reveal another part of his massive kit, the drummer spun his stool around to play new thunderous rhythms and dense lines. An electronic portion of the kit allowed Peart to sound out melody lines along with his distinctive drum fills; at the end of the solo, the video screen showed images of a drumming robot combined with black-and-white clips of Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton, a visual tribute to Heard's jazz heroes.
Lifeson took a brief break from his Les Pauls for a stirring 12-string acoustic guitar solo before the opening of "Closer to the Heart." His solo flight lacked the feeling of complete spontaneity, but the tight, evocative guitar lines still had an emotional impact. If any moment eloquently captured the trio's ability to create a sound worthy of a prog-rock orchestra, it was the driving rendition of "2112," a stirring paean to one of the group's first orchestral achievements and to its persistent skill for creating musically challenging and hard-rocking anthems. The sold-out crowd chimed in for the rounds of sung "Heys" in the chorus," and the combined energy of the massive audience was downright electric at moments.
It was a performance that eloquently summarized the band's power and its precision. Sure, some of the tunes may have relied a bit too much on preset arrangements and patterns. But even the straight album performances sounded challenging and cerebral. Rush's music retains its dense beauty, and the members have become well disciplined in finding its live potential.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I am a much more casual Rush fan than many of the faithful fans who were in attendance on Monday, so the nuances of some of the more recent material may very well have been lost on me. One of my friends has seen Rush seven times, and he called the show the sloppiest he'd ever seen. Another has been to more than fifty Rush shows since 1980, and he had no complaints about the solidity of the set. The performance of Moving Pictures, my best-known Rush album, was particularly gratifying for me. By the Way: Both Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson are pretty good actors. They offered some genuinely funny moments in their performances in the brief opening clips. Random Detail: Lee's falsettos held up for most of the show, but he seemed to strain a bit during "Tom Sawyer."
RUSH - SETLIST Red Rocks Amphitheatre - 08.16.10
1. The Spirit of Radio 2. Time Stand Still 3. Presto 4. Stick It Out 5. Workin' Them Angels 6. Leave That Thing Alone 7. Faithless 8. I Was Brought Up to Believe 9. Freewill 10. Marathon 11. Subdivisions
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12. Tom Sawyer 13. Red Barchetta 14. YYZ 15. Limelight 16. The Camera Eye 17. Witch Hunt 18. Vital Signs 19. Caravan 20. Drum Solo 21. Closer To The Heart 22. 2112 Part I: Overture 23. 2112 Part II: The Temples of Syrinx 24. Far Cry
25. LaVilla Strangiato 26. Working Man