September 15, 2012 at United Center in Chicago, IL
Watching the Canadian rock band Rush perform in concert is nothing short of an astonishing miracle. Every time Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart step onstage, Rush fans are acutely aware they are witnessing something that should not be. Back in 1997 and 1998, Neil Peart experienced a dual tragedy that would permanently sideline any other human being for life. I won't bore you with the details and if you're interested in the lone trek he made to come through the other side, pick up Peart's book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road to attempt to grasp the ache he experienced. However, as I watched the band onstage inside the United Center this past Saturday, I cannot help but feel they are at the peak of their powers on their current tour. During the show's second song "The Big Money", bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson were huddled around Neil Peart's drum kit as the let loose for a jam. Watching the robust resolve of these three men is a notable sight. The chemistry between the three is palpable. The Chicago crowd locked their eyes on the band as they came back to bring the song to a dramatic climax. It has only been fourteen months since Rush completed their latest tour and yet despite Chicago only being the fifth show of the tour, they appeared to be in better shape than most band's into a yearlong tour. The Time Machine Tour from 2010-11 featured the band performing Moving Pictures in its entirety. This time around, the band hit the stage with a vision for the future, represented by their latest studio album Clockwork Angels. The 160-minute show was split into two sets with the first hour consisting of older deep cuts followed by an hour long set focusing on Clockwork Angels and then 45-additional minutes of hits. Rush is not the type of band who is going to significantly shift their set list night-to-night but on the flipside, they sit down and rehearse extensively for each and every tour to the degree that their first show of the tour and their final one are almost on the same musical level. They hit the road with the bar set high and never dip below it.
After a quick video introduction beginning at 7:40, Rush took to the stage eliciting roars as they opened with the concentrated keyboard opening of "Subdivisions". For the next hour, Rush delivered definitive versions of many hits and rarely played album cuts. While Rush may not change up their songs the way Pearl Jam or Springsteen do, they tackle every tour trying to unearth some forgotten gems and the 2012 jaunt is no different. "Grand Designs", "The Body Electric", "Territories" and the "Manhattan Project" received their first live airings in more than two decades while the "Analog Kid", "Where's My Thing", "Bravado", "Force Ten", "Red Sector A" and "The Big Money" all making appearances for the first time at least two tours. That is at least ten songs not performed the last two tours at every show. Add on the nine Clockwork Angels songs and you have a show where nearly seventy-five percent of it is new from their last two tours. Rush does their catalog service never allowing it to overstay its welcome with each song taking a well-deserved break and when the time and tour is right, they will bring it back out where it will sound rejuvenated and refreshed. In a decade where certain artists claim to change the sets every night, these changes often consist of pedestrian material that fits in the vocal range of the singer and rarely giving into the audience's demands but Rush appears to be acutely aware of what their audience wants and the performances of these songs are infused with immediacy. "Bravado" found Lifeson throwing himself into his solo with such vigor it could only be matched by the concentrated drumming of Peart. The jazz-funk fusion of "Where's My Thing" was a vehicle for Geddy Lee's four string dexterity while the guiding drive of "Far Cry" which featured a eye-gazing pyrotechnic blast amidst soulful musical precision. "The Body Electric" was menacing in its heavy-footed stomping by Peart where he matched the rising intensity of Lee's vocals note-after-note. Consistent with recent tours, the staging featured state-of-the-art videos, lighting and props. The beauty off their stage is that while they help connect the crowd and further themes of the songs, it never overshadows the music. The animation scenes compliment the songs and pull those in the nosebleeds closer to the stage. The band is not afraid to laugh at themselves (notable through the mini movies and animations), but by being so endearing, it clears the palette to take their music seriously.
The second set opened with nine songs from their latest album, Clockwork Angels. Released this past June, the band has released their best and most complete record in more than two decades. It captures their musical virtuosity and takes the listener on a voyage of adversity and discovery. In a day and age where ticket prices often keep new songs on the sidelines, Rush takes an opposite direction of their contemporaries performing nine of them in a row. Musicians complain about fans showing a lack of curiosity in new material, but I personally feel it is their own fault for not finding a way to hold the audience's attention. Despite performing songs less than three months old for over an hour, the audience at the United Center did not just stand in rapt attention but sung along to every word. There are bands who sell more concert tickets, have had bigger radio hits and who may be know the casual observers, but Rush has a devoted fan base who is not just willing to listen conscientiously, but interact with them as well. You have the audience's interest and you should make good use of it. Besides performing the songs with eagerness, Rush paired these new songs with fascinating theatrics including pyrotechnics, divergent lights and top tier animation on the huge screen at the back of the stage.
A constant in Rush's music since their rebirth a decade back is the passage of time. From songs like "One Little Victory" to "Far Cry", they are delivering a rousing vision of survival. Clockwork Angels is one of the band's most accomplished long form recordings over the last three decades. There is a well drawn out journey executed from the album's opener "Caravan" to its transcendent closer, "The Garden". For the first time in their forty year history, there were additional musicians onstage with Rush – an eight piece string section utilized beautifully helping flesh out the solemn and subtle nuances of the new songs. The expressive heaviness of "Carnies" carried forward with the strings while "The Wreckers" bloomed amongst fifteen thousand fans. It did not feel like a new song but a performance straight from their DNA. It is about finding a reason to strive forward in the force of unforeseen brutality. "The Wreckers" takes its name from looters who by lighting bonfires across shorelines would lead unassuming ships into a trap where their ships crashed. If the melodic charm of the song does not win you over then the searing lyrics will. The lighting emulated the rain on the screens while the storm of the song captures Rush at their preeminent. Peart's lyrics tell tales that question the very fortitude of existence. The travelers we cross paths with are not always of a good heart and as complicated as this is to grasp, the band harnessed this anguish into a song with not just teeth but also a chorus ready-made for FM dials. "Headlong Fight" was unremitting in their molten metal delivery of the song where Lee harmonized and screamed, "I have stoked the fire on the big steel wheels" in a structure that found the band carving a valiant new path. We are told if we follow the rules and treat people with love and respect rewards are infinite. Clockwork Angels throws this theory on its head. It challenges the listener much the same way each one of us is presented with unforeseen. It is impossible to not imagine the calamities Peart experienced when listening to these new songs. The performance by the three core members takes on an out-of-body experience as Rush excels in delivering each song with a thwacking and courageous blow sixty piece orchestras could not match. You look onstage and feel that three musicians should not be enough to put forth music of this magnitude, but anyone who believes that does not know Rush. It is not about how many musicians you have onstage but the gusto with which the songs are delivered and no one can tap into the heart of darkness like Rush.
After an hour of hopeful life lessons and reinforcement from the band, the eight-piece string section stayed on the stage to compliment some classics including a bracing "YYZ" which found the strings prominent and providing shades to the song not imagined previously. After the eight additional musicians left the stage, Rush went back to doing what they do best, performing complex and uplifting anthems for the sold-out crowd. The end of the show featured the crowd favorites "The Spirit of Radio" which took a frenzied crowd and put them into the stratosphere while the encore of "Tom Sawyer" and "2112 I-II & VII" to close out the evening. The band took a seventeen-minute break between the first and second sets and aside from that, the show consisted of more than 160-minutes of music and twenty-seven songs plus a few Neil Peart drum solos.
Most fans attend concert to hear the classic songs to remind them of who they once were. Few ever go to see who they are and more significantly, who they are capable of being. What differentiates Rush from other acts is an inexorable yearning to still create, still be heard and still make a difference. The philosophical tales that embody Clockwork Angels are enough to pull us from a tragic ending. Rush's utmost power is their knack to make their audience sense as if they are not alone in their passage. Rush fans who entered the United Center this past weekend in Chicago had more than reminders of the past but a clear visualization of their futures in the form of progressive hymns that have the capacity to steer you through to toxic dusk into the dew filled sunrise.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter