Prog Rockers Rush Up Their Game for Current Tour

Concert Review

Within the animated video montage of Rush-related landmarks, concert handbills, band memorabilia and not so subtle visual song and album references that opened up last night's tour stop at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, there was a glimmer of hope for fans who continue to patiently wait for a Cleveland tour date to hopefully be added to the schedule. In the opening seconds of the film, there it was — a cartoon rendering of a radio station building with the call letters WMMS on top — a nice nod to the long-running relationship, appreciation and mutual respect that the Canadian rock legends have shared with the city where they first got the key initial airplay for all seven minutes (there were no radio edits necessary in those days) of “Working Man,” from their 1974 self-titled debut album. You can see a slideshow of photos from the concert here

Forty one years later, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers (that part took a while) are still rolling with numerous albums and singles to their credit and that left them with a lot of ground to cover, spread across two sets and a healthy encore set, clocking in at more than two and a half hours. They did it with typical humor and precision, with bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee joking with the capacity crowd, “Of course, if we do anything, we do it backwards.” He was referring to the evening’s setlist, one which was laid out chronologically, but played in reverse order.

Truthfully, it might have been a calculated move — there aren’t too many bands who can boast that their newest material released nearly four decades into their career — is some of their strongest songwriting and playing to date. That’s definitely what the band revealed by opening with a trio of cuts from their 2012 Clockwork Angels album. The show opening “The Anarchist” and the seven minute-plus “Headlong Flight” especially, were packed full of gloriously raggedly heavy riffs from guitarist Alex Lifeson, moments that quickly took the musical time traveling machine straight back into the belly of the ‘70s hard rock scene from which the Canadian exports had first emerged.

And one can wonder how they do it, but with each tour — the current R40 tour being no exception, they seem to up their visual, sonic and performance game a little bit more, with the giant towering video screens seemingly reaching just a bit higher and the pyro, delightfully still in place, detonating for the first time with full force midway through “Far Cry,” the spiritually stirring cut from 2007’s Snakes & Arrows and the floor rumbling explosions were at times, even connected with the visuals in such a way that the creatures and characters on the screens seemed inches away from coming into real life.

The band would demonstrate that the only dinosaurs in the house were the miniature ones that lined the top of Lifeson’s amps (later during the second set of the evening, the veteran guitarist stood in front of a wall of Marshall amps, many of which would be comedically removed, one by one, by the stage crew, who were clad in Devo-like suits with “R40” on them). The setlist had a little bit of something for everyone, with the first set largely focused on their more “recent” material from Clockwork Angels through 1982’s Signals album.

Following a short intermission, the second set of the evening lingered in the ‘80s initially for a pair of cuts from 1981’s Moving Pictures, opening with the classic “Tom Sawyer” (with the now familiar animated introduction from the South Park characters as ‘Lil’ Rush’) and “Red Barchetta. A double shot from 1980’s Permanent Waves followed with “The Spirit of Radio” and a true nugget, “Jacob’s Ladder,” a track that Lee was quick to note was one that had been out of the Rush setlist for so long that he thought they hadn’t ever played it. “I’m told I’m wrong,” he admitted to the Columbus audience, joking that it wasn’t “the first time” that he had been wrong about something.

Climbing high above a synth-driven bed, Lifeson’s guitar solo on “Jacob’s Ladder” was further illuminated by a trio of lasers that cast prism-like patterns deep into the crowd. The band subsequently dove deep into the ‘70s with choice sections of the “Cygnus” suite, blending elements of the musical passages from the Hemispheres and A Farewell to Kings albums with a typically powerful drum solo from rhythmic guru Neil Peart, commanding his second drum kit of the night (he switched to a more old school kit at the start of the second set) and highlighting a heavy dose of his methodically focused and intense drumming. It is Peart who seems to shoulder the heaviest load as the group begins its fourth decade of professional activity together. One wonders how long he can maintain his present levels of intensity and indeed, it is the tendonitis that he battles these days that has brought out the first signs of a possible future end date for the group.

And if this current R40 tour is indeed the last full-scale run for Rush, they’re going out with a mighty bang — Lifeson and Lee both sporting double-neck guitars for “Xanadu” followed by the epic “2112” suite was a satisfying closer to the main set. The encore set covered the remaining ‘70s albums including the rarely played “What You’re Doing” (absent from the group’s shows since 1977) and things wrapped up as they began so long ago with the always-familiar and welcome “Working Man.”

There were quite a few Cleveland music fans among the “Ohioans” (as Lee addressed the crowd early in the night) in attendance and while it seems quite likely that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame city will get a late-breaking tour date somewhere on the tail end of this current run, it was evident that nobody wanted to take any chances. But there will be no hard feelings if a Cleveland date (and surely, that has to happen) is announced for the fall — it was clear that all in attendance would relish the opportunity to experience the evening at least one more time.
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