In a theatrical, three-hour throwdown, Canadian power trio Rush pulverized eardrums in Red Rocks Monday night, flaunting their pioneering tenor with the vigor of musicians a third their age.
The trio — all either 56 or 57 -– seem to be getting better with age, as evidenced by Monday night’s rollicking stomp through the band’s 19-album catalog. From the poppy, Polka-tinged “Spirit of Radio” opener through the entire 1981 “Moving Pictures” album to the labyrinthine, prog-rock instrumentals “Where’s My Thing,” “2112 Overture,” and “La Villa Strangiato,” the 42-year-old band delivered dense compositions, rife with thick bass chords and their plentiful and often deviant time signatures.
“So many songs. Too many songs,” said the still-spectacled and still-golden-throated bassist Geddy Lee, early in the show as he prepped his black-shirted zealots for the bombastic journey ahead.
The band’s light show was dialed way back -– almost to the point of noticeable weakness — to accommodate an ethereal video montage behind the stage. Following the opening Monty Python-inspired video featuring a fledgling band “Rash,” the screen veered from Steampunked robot drummers to trip-inducing vistas. Flickering black-and-white images of skyscraping metal workers, laboring farmers and weathered soldiers backed the lyrically-crowded “Workin’ Them Angels.” Instrument wielding monkeys –- ironical? — led the intro the highly anticipated “Tom Sawyer,” signaling the beginning of the “Moving Pictures” album. The windshield view of a car racing through meadows joined the crowd-pleasing “Red Barchetta.” New York City featured prominently during “The Camera Eye.”
No video rivaled the sheer awesomeness of the overhead shots of drummer Neil Peart, a.k.a. The Greatest Drummer In The History Of The World. Watching the master flex his percussive vocabulary on what appeared to be a 50-plus piece cockpit of drums and cymbals was the ultimate spectacle, inspiring a near tornado of air-drumming across the sold-out amphitheater.
Peart — who penned most Rush lyrics with an incisive, philosophical bent — is all business on stage. With nary a grin or even a whisper of apparent exertion, Peart fills every composition with ravaging virtuosity. During a not-even-close-to-indulgent drum solo that was heartily embraced by the entire venue, Peart’s set spun around him as he caromed through orchestral, jungle boogie, big band beats.
As an industrial-era machine — occasionally fed chickens by an aproned cart pusher — churned out sausage (seriously), Lee led Peart and often overshadowed guitarist Alex Lifeson through mirror-image presentations of their music. Lifeson looked ready to stretch his improvisational chops at a couple points — particularly during the backside of the fiery “Free Will” and “Marathon” — but corralled his urges into fleeting flourishes.
Halfway through the 37-stop “Time Machine Tour,” the band was comfortable with their never-changing set lists and always-in-step tunes. Maybe too comfortable. Red Rocks is supposed to inspire musicians to stretch themselves creatively, to dig deeper into songs as they build a connection with the stunning environment. Monday night’s show featured none of that. Only two songs veered slightly off studio versions: a barely altered acoustic intro to “Closer to the Heart” and a reggae-inspired intro to encore “Working Man.”
Could be that the adherence to the original script is a nod to the timelessness of Rush’s repertoire. It needs no improvement. Lee’s vocals still hit stunning highs. Peart’s passion for plundering percussion seems as charged as ever. Lifeson’s unwaveringly tight technique still serves a needed supporting role for Lee and Peart’s thunder.
Maybe embellishment would only tarnish the powerfully collaborative compositions that define Rush.
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Jason Blevins is a strange dancer, but that has never stopped him.
John Leyba is a photojournalist for The Denver Post and regular contributor to Reverb.