How many bands have the kind of staying power Rush has displayed for the 41 years they’ve been together? Even the hiatus the band took in the aftermath of drummer Neil Peart’s twin personal tragedies (losing both his daughter and wife in the space of 10 months in the late ‘90s), Rush is one of those mainstays of rock that hung around so long because their fans are so devoted.
When a group’s output spans four decades, it’s clear that those who are passionate about their music will also reflect a broad base of age ranges. And so it was at Rush’s three hour performance at the SAP Center in San Jose on July 23rd. The place was packed with die-hard fans from the ‘70s to today. Many families were there to probably see dad’s (and maybe mom’s) favorite band from their parent’s hey day, and as has been the case since 2008, there are many more women showing up to Rush concerts than there were in the ’70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and up to the R30 Tour. The running joke (based on no small part that it’s mostly true) that Rush is a “guy band” has been the butt of jokes the band even acknowledged during the Time Machine Tour video segments featuring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel (For the record, I took my 19-year-old daughter to the show. And while she’s not a super-fan, she did grow up listening to Rush and has been to three shows where she enjoys watching the throng of air drumming and guitar playing men in their 40s and 50s).
With the R40 Tour, Rush came to town with a true retrospective of their work. Starting with their most recent songs, the group worked backward to the beginning of their career with music that highlighted the stylistic changes the band explored, but also a consistent “Rush sound” that they never strayed too far away from — even during the “synth years” of the ‘80s. The music from their best late-career album, “Clockwork Angels” was aggressive, layered, complex, and melodic. But it also showcased how much the group has matured in terms of lyrics and song structure in the scope of that easy-to-make-fun of genre: the concept album. Sure, Rush was very ham-handed in their attempts at a big concept (see, “The Necromancer,” The Fountain of Lamneth” and “Didacts and Narpets” from “Caress of Steel”), and even “2112” can be a bit eye-rolling at the over-the-top operatics — though it’s clearly the better of the two records. But by the time the group recorded “Hemispheres,” I think they realized they had squeezed as much juice out of that fruit as they could. That’s not to say that “2112” and “Hemispheres” were crap, it’s just the genre (if one can call it that) was becoming a parody of itself in the era of Punk and New Wave — and the band knew it.
If there was a meta-joke layered into Rush’s three hour R40 performance, it was not one of progression, but rather regression. Starting from a sampling of their latest songs, the band “devolved” into earlier and earlier stages of their career — with the stage set mirroring their regression. Opening with all the state of the art LED displays, lasers and video images to accompany the songs, the stage set up started to change after the band finished with three songs from “Clockwork Angels.” Stage hands in their R40 jumpsuits (true working men!) took apart the set and rearranged the faux stacks of amplifiers to mirror the different stages (another intentional pun) the band configured for their concerts. By the time “Tom Sawyer” was played in the second set, the stacks of Marshall amps on Alex’s side were incredibly tall — but the lighting effects started to become less spectacular. This constant changing of the stage set up was done very casually by the R40 crew and by the time they played their last song, the stage was supposed to look like a high school gym (the amps were even put on school chairs to reflect their “Hey, we’re just starting out” vibe).
But what of the show? The stage is one thing, but the song selection was another. Rush tailored this performance to cater to the fair weather fans and those who have stuck with them since the beginning. So for every “Tom Sawyer,” “The Spirit of Radio,” and “Working Man,” the band threw in a number of deep cuts that made for many surprises. Since the tour is almost over as of this posting, it’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that the group did not shy away from “Cygnus X-I Book II: ‘Hemispheres’ I Prelude” “Cygnus X-1 ‘The Voyage’ Parts 1 and 3,” “Xanadu,” “What You’re Doing,” and “Jacob’s Ladder.” Now, the band rotates seven setlists that spike in three or four different songs to keep it fresh, so whatever show you saw, you were treated to a more custom setlist. The fact that Rush went really deep into their catalog made it a real thrill for super-fans like yours truly to hear “Cygnus X-I Book II ‘Hemispheres’ Prelude” played live.
I have mixed feelings about the R40 Tour. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy myself (I truly did), it’s just with the announcement that the band will not be able to undertake a tour of this size again made me think that this could be the last time I see the band live. That may not be the case, but it’s clear that with their age (early 60s), their health (especially Alex Lifeson who has arthritis), and personal desires (Neil Peart does not want to be away from his family for long periods of time), the band won’t be hitting the road for 35 to 40 city tours — nor will fans be treated to the three hour marathon shows they’ve grown accustomed to since the Test for Echo Tour. No. What may happen is they will scale back to maybe 10 to 15 cities and have an opening act — or do a week’s worth of shows in just a few cities. Whatever they decide, fans will show up. Also, this is not the end of their musical output. The band still plans on recording new music, so there’s more to look forward to from Rush. But judging from how tired The Boys were at the end of the show in San Jose, they’ve clearly closed the book on this phase of their career and are looking forward to a long rest — followed by “Okay, what are we going to do next?”