Rush @ Red Rocks AmphitheatreBy Candace Horgan | June 29th, 2008 | 6 comments
Reinforcing their reputation for instrumental virtuosity, Rush played both classics and new tunes at Red Rocks on Wednesday. Photos by John Leyba.
Looking around at the crowd at Red Rocks Wednesday night, it was surprising to see so many young faces eager to hear Rush play. The audience ran the gamut from pre-teens to people in their retirement years. That begs the question, “Is Rush ageless?”
For 34 years now, the Canadian power trio has been doing their own thing, ignoring critics, spurning radio hits, and building a devoted fan base that rivals that of bands like the Grateful Dead and Pearl Jam. Rush seems to tour like clockwork every three years, and whether they have a new album out or not, the shows will sell out.
Rush was the first concert I ever went to, when I saw them in 1983 at Radio City Music Hall. Very little has changed for the band since then. Their faces have some age lines, and guitarist Alex Lifeson is a little heavier, but barring that, it was like stepping into a time warp.
Wednesday’s show was a rescheduled date from the June 5 show canceled due to inclement weather. Talking to a fan from Arizona who had flown up for that date and again last night, he wondered if the show was jinxed, as thunderstorms threatened to unleash on the crowd. However, nothing more than mild sprinkles hit during the course of the evening, as the worst of the weather stayed to the south, treating the fans to a spectacular lightning show to accompany the music.
How to describe a Rush concert though? At one end of the hard rock spectrum you have Led Zeppelin, a band that, in concert, uses its tunes as a launching pad for dizzying improvisational exploration that would make Jerry Garcia proud. On the other hand you have Rush, a band that approaches its tunes in concert with symphonic precision, almost never deviating from the original recordings. Lifeson is on record as saying that when he goes to a concert, he is disappointed when the band doesn’t sound like they do on the record. It’s no surprise then, that if you have heard Rush’s albums, you know how Alex plays his solos in concert, offering note-for-note accurate reprisals.
The band’s concert precision even applies to when they take the stage, which was at precisely 8 p.m., as promised. The stage was decorated with three rotisserie ovens which were filled with chickens cooking. Periodically over the course of the night, a chef would walk onstage and baste the birds with a sly smile.
Opening with a demented video about Alex and drummer Neal Peart having a bad dream, followed by bassist Geddy Lee’s bad dream sequence, the band launched into “Limelight,” from the ultra-classic 1981 album “Moving Pictures.”
Though he will turn 55 next month, Lee is still capable of hitting the high notes, as he proved at the start of “Mission,” from “Hold Your Fire.” While most older bands drop their songs a key or two so the singer can hold the notes, Lee still sings the songs for the most part in their original key. Lifeson’s solo during “Mission” was filled with ear-piercing harmonics.
With so much material to draw on, Rush, unlike nostalgia acts, is determined to keep it fresh. This tour is in support of the band’s last CD, “Snakes and Arrows,” and they played a lot of material from it. In the first set, “The Main Monkey Business,” a dazzling instrumental, was followed by “The Larger Bowl,” complete with a video introduction by Bob and Doug McKenzie. The latter included a heavy-handed video accompaniment.
While I’ve always appreciated the political themes in a lot of Peart’s lyrics, having a video that was supposed to bolster lyrics like “Some are blessed and some are cursed, the golden one or scarred from birth, while others only see the worst, such a lot of pain on the earth,” surprisingly detracted from them instead. It’s better to let your own mind create the associations, as it leads to a more personal connection.
Because the band plays virtual note-for-note renditions of their songs, the occasional deviation seems jarring, as during “Red Barchetta,” when they changed the rhythm a little during the bridge, creating an interesting effect. The group closed their first set with a hard-driving version of “Dreamline.”
Set two opened again with a deranged video sequence with all three band members, titled “What’s that Smell?” While set one featured an interesting array of older material, in set two the band challenged the audience right from the start, opening with five songs from “Snakes and Arrows.”
Some of the newer material, like “Workin’ them Angels,” sparkled, but some of it seemed like the band was trying to hard to be creative, as on “Sprindrift,” a song that dragged too much. While it as all well and good to promote the new material, by the fifth song, “The Way the Wind Blows,” you could see the band was losing the audience a little.
From there however, they delved back into some classics, starting with their ode to suburban teen alienation, “Subdivisions.” Hearing a song like this live is a study in Rush’s instrumental virtuosity, as Lee seamlessly switches between hard-driving bass lines and synthesizer playing, while Lifeson and Peart alternated between solid rhythm playing a deft leads.
If I have one criticism of Rush in concert, it is the lack of dynamics in their playing. Lifeson compresses his guitar to get a great crunchy tone, but even the “quiet” parts of songs are played at the same volume as the guitar solos, and sometimes Peart’s textured drumming was lost in the mix.
For instance, “Natural Science,” one of my favorite Rush songs, starts with a quiet acoustic part, which Lifeson actually plays on his electric, using an acoustic piezo pickup to simulate an acoustic tone. However, there was virtually no swing in volume level between that part and the hard rock of the first two verses. Adding more dynamics would give more punch to the hard rock parts of the songs.
Having said that, hearing the dazzling instrumental parts of “Natural Science,” followed by the ominous “Witch Hunt,” in which Peart writes brilliantly about how leaders exploit fear of the unknown to maintain power, was the highlight of the night.
After playing a strong version of the Grammy-nominated “Malignant Narcisism,” complete with an extended drum solo from Peart, Rush ended the second set with two longtime concert staples, “2112” and “Tom Sawyer,” the latter complete with a video introduction from the “South Park” cartoon characters playing in “Lil’ Rush” and singing the wrong lyrics.
The band came back for a three song encore that included the rarely played “A Passage to Bangkok,” during which Lifeson made one of his few flubs of the night on a guitar part, and the rocking instrumental “YYZ.” Rush surely won over any younger fans last night, and the die-hard older ones were more than satisfied.
Reverb contributor Candace Horgan is a Denver-based freelance writer. Check out her website.
Contributor John Leyba is a photographer for The Denver Post.