Rush is an enigma to many, a hard rock band from Toronto that has somehow survived for decades. This band has been together for most of its members’ lives, first forming in 1968; the current lineup has been together for close to 40 years. Bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee turns 60 today, and if my math is correct he’s been in the band since the age of 15. In an era where musical groups fall apart like wet tissue paper, what makes these guys so unique?
I caught the band in Atlantic City, NJ in May, and again at Jones Beach, NY in June. I’m surprised the band chose to return to the Atlantic City venue, the Mark Etess Arena. This concert hall is located in the recesses of the Trump Taj Mahal casino, which holds out the best seats for high rollers. Drummer/lyricist Neil Peart criticized this practice on a previous tour; at one show the arena was full, with the exception of the high-roller seats directly in front of the stage. However, that was not an issue on this night.
It seems to me that with most bands, casual fans want to hear the hits while the more seasoned fan enjoys hearing deep cuts played live. Rush mixed it up nicely in their opening set, which featured some hits along with deep tracks, many from 1985’s relatively obscure (to the casual fan) Power Windows.
This has always been a musician’s band; there are no love songs, and catchy hooks and lilting verses are few and far between. This is particularly true of the Power Windows material, which seemed to leave some audience members of the Atlantic City audience puzzled/disinterested, but the inclusion of better-known cuts like Limelight and Subdivisions kept that crowd engaged. Meanwhile, the seemingly more familiar Jones Beach crowd welcomed the deep cuts warmly.
At both shows, guitarist Alex Lifeson tore off an incredible guitar solo on The Analog Kid, one of the many musical highlights of the first set. Rush performs as its own opening act, playing for about 1:15 before taking an extended break.
Halfway through that break, a video began to play. An inquisitive young man in a suit, possibly from the IRS, is piloting a balloon through the clouds, searching for the Watchmaker. When he arrives at the Watchmaker’s abode in the sky, he is greeted by three gnomes. He tells the gnomes that he has questions about some ‘discrepancies’. The gnomes, played by the members of the band, never lead him to the Watchmaker, who may or may not exist. They torment the young man before dispatching him.
As the video ends, the first strains of Caravan, the opening cut from the band’s new Clockwork Angels set, fade in. A string ensemble now accompanies the band. Clockwork Angels is a parable about religion and atheism, a story of loss and redemption. Featuring incredibly proficient musicianship, this may be the best work the band has done in decades. The band played most of the new album; again, the Jones Beach crowd seemed more receptive than the Atlantic City audience. After another brief break, the band encored with Tom Sawyer and some cuts from 2112.
Those who have criticized Mr. Lee’s high-pitched vocals will be pleased to hear that he writes/sings in a lower register now, but still manages to do justice to the band’s earlier material. The sound system was incredibly crisp and pleasant. I highly recommend both of these venues; the Etess arena is a more intimate setting than Madison Square Garden or similar hockey barns, and Jones Beach is an outdoor arena. This puts you at the mercy of the elements, and it did rain lightly on the night I attended. I didn’t mind, and the audience, which stayed until the end of the three-hour show, didn’t seem to mind either.