As a devoted fan of the band Rush, I attended their Cincinnati show on Monday, June 30, 2008. This tour is the second leg of their Snakes & Arrows tour, begun last year in support of their 2007 album by the same name.
The show took place at Riverbend Music Center, an outdoor pavilion that is generally the site of any major act that plays Cincinnati. Its name is derived from its geographic location: it literally sits in a sharp bend of the Ohio River, in the spot where the river bends northward toward downtown Cincinnati. When watching a show there, you can see the river a hundred yards or so behind the pavilion.
After 34 years together without a personnel change, Rush is at the height of their virtuosic powers. Known primarily for each members’ extraordinary instrumental ability, Rush’s music is intricate, tightly woven, and emotionally powerful. The band consists of three members: Geddy Lee on bass, keyboards, synthesizers, and lead vocals; Alex Lifeson on guitar, synthesizers, and backing vocals; and Neil Peart on drums and percussion (Peart is also the band's primary lyricist). Perhaps the most impressive facet of seeing Rush play live is the fact that only three people are able to create such full, textured music. While it is true that some of the musical layers and effects are programmed sounds triggered with pedals or keys, it is significant that no one off-stage is ever triggering these effects: every musical note emitted from the speakers is either played or triggered by one of the three band members. Lee is perhaps the most proficient at this: it is not uncommon to see him playing a virtuosic bass riff, singing the lyrics, and triggering keyboard or synthesizer background sounds with his feet – all at the same time. He often gets stuck out in the middle of the stage during an interlude playing his bass, and has to run back to his console on stage left to trigger a sound or sing a lyric.
This show was my sixth since discovering Rush in about 2001. My seat was not good; I was seated in the 45th row, on the far right side of the pavilion. I was only a few yards in front of the first row of people on the lawn.
The show opened with an amusing video montage with all three band members, including a scene where Alex Lifeson awakes from a nightmare about snakes to discover Neil Peart in his bed, and a scene with Geddy Lee dressed as a Scotsman, complete with red tartan kilt and tam o’shanter.
Opening with a rocking rendition of the crowd-pleasing 1980 hit “Limelight,” the band seemed to be full of energy and enthusiasm – quite an accomplishment for three men in their late 50’s who have played nearly 100 shows, on three continents, in the last year. Following “Limelight” was a great version of 1982’s “Digital Man,” a sleeper song that frequently gets ignored on my play list, but which really comes to life in the slightly altered version played on this tour. Especially prominent is an extended “jam session” at the end that really gives the song a kick. Other first set songs included “Between the Wheels,” “Dreamline,” radio and fan favorites “Freewill” and “The Trees,” “Mission,” and several selections from 2007’s Snakes & Arrows album, including “The Larger Bowl” and “The Main Monkey Business.”
After a twenty minute intermission (Lee announced that the band needed to take a break because, basically, they were all a bunch of old men), the band opened the second set with a string of songs from Snakes & Arrows, including the crowd pleaser “Far Cry,” which contains an startlingly loud pyrotechnic display midway through, “Spindrift,” and “The Way the Wind Blows,” which features prominent blues-inspired riffing by Lifeson. Other songs included “Subdivisions,” “Witch Hunt,” “Natural Science,” and an acoustic guitar solo by Lifeson entitled “Hope.”
One of the highlights of any Rush concert is the drum solo by Neil Peart. Widely regarded as one of the very best drummers in rock n’ roll (diehard fans would say the best), Peart has won numerous drumming awards, including winning his second consecutive Drummer of the Year award this year from Drum! magazine. In 2004, Peart’s drum solo from 2002’s tour, featured on a 2003 live album, was nominated for a Grammy award for best instrumental (Peart, and Rush, lost to Brian Wilson).
Peart’s drum solo simply defies words. He sits on a stool surrounded by equipment on all sides – the 360-degree kit has a small opening at the rear to allow him to come and go. The set contains both acoustic and electronic drums, about a million cymbals – both acoustic and electronic – and an array of tuned cow bells, foot pedals, trigger pads, and an electronic marimba. When switching from acoustic to electronic drums, the entire set revolves on a pedestal, and Peart stands up and turns around to reposition himself. The solo ends with Peart accompanying the Count Basie song “Cotton Tail” – a fast-paced Big Band tune rife with brass.
The entire solo is adequately described as “jaw-dropping,” but perhaps the most impressive point comes when Peart “slows it down,” and plays a song on the electronic marimba while accompanying himself on drums. In this section of the solo, Peart plays the main beat (bass drum and snare) with foot pedals, while playing the marimba melody with his drumsticks, interspersed with complicated drum fills and cymbal crashes. The level of limb independence required to do this simply defies logic. Try to pat your head with one hand, rub your belly with the other, scratch the dirt with one toe, and draw a square in the dirt with the other toe – all at the same time – and you will get an idea of the level of ability it takes to pull off what Peart does in front of 10,000 fans every night.
The second set of the concert ended with Rush’s signature song and biggest hit “Tom Sawyer.” The song was introduced with a South Park video depicting the characters attempting to perform the song, with Cartman mistaking Tom Sawyer for Huckleberry Finn.
After exiting the stage for the customary few minutes, Rush returned for an encore, which featured a pyrotechnic display during “One Little Victory” and a deep-cut from 1976 called “A Passage to Bangkok.” The irony behind the performance of this song (popular with many fans because it is all about a trip around the world to find the best marijuana) is that during 2004’s tour, the concerts were introduced with a video clip featuring Jerry Stiller, who comments that he “hopes they play ‘Bangkok,’” but then, upon reflection, states, “Nah, they never play ‘Bangkok.’”
The final song of the encore was the popular “YYZ,” an instrumental from 1981’s multi-platinum album “Moving Pictures.”
All in all, Rush is still as great as ever. Their shows are energetic and visually-stimulating, and their virtuosity, if anything, has only increased over the last three decades. Lee’s voice does not have quite the power or control that it once had, but his ability to hit all those high notes, night after night, at his age, is a feat in and of itself.
Having discovered Rush late in their career, I always fear that each show I attend will be the last one I get to see. I definitely felt that way this year, as Rush has already indicated that they will likely take a very long “break” after this tour. They are already in their late 50’s – a long rest would mean they may not consider touring again until they are past 60. By that time, they may decide to just hang it up.
This fan, at least, hopes that is not the case.