Photos & Story by Scott A. Smith
Rock’s greatest trio are back, and their tour-launching gig on May 8 at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. was a loud-and-clear indicator that singer-bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart just can’t slow down.
Lasting nearly three hours, the concert blasted from the starting gate with “Clockwork Angels,” “The Anarchist” and “Headlong Flight,” three offerings that were solid but were no match for what came later. Employing a unique approach to their vast, varying catalog, Rush went backwards in time with their set list, moving from “Far Cry,” “The Main Monkey” and “One Little Victory” to the 1990s, the 1980s and, eventually the 1970s.
Fans of Rush’s 1980s work cheered loudly for “Distant Early Warning” and “Subdivisions,” two of the best post-“Moving Pictures” cuts, while “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit of Radio” gained even more howls of pleasure from the near-capacity crowd. The hopeful “Closer to the Heart,” the epic, two-part “Cygnus X-1” and an abbreviated-yet-punch packing take of “2112” also were unleashed in energetic form, while “Lakeside Park” and “What You’re Doing” made their first stage appearances since 1978 and 1977, respectively.
Rush surprised many of the males and females – yes, there were females there, too – in the audience, bypassing concert diamonds like “YYZ,” “Limelight” and “Freewill” in favor of dusting off rarely played gems like “Jacob’s Ladder” and the prog-rock masterpiece, “Xanadu.” For the latter, Lee and Lifeson got their ’70s swag going into high gear by strapping on double-neck guitars. “Xanadu,” like so many of the evening’s other songs, was note-perfect, with its haunting first section finding Lifeson’s trance-like electric guitar intro merging into a metallic motif that cut through faux stage smoke and roaming, thin beams of pink, purple and green lasers.
Stepping into Joe Walsh mode, Lee changed basses in between every song, tapping and pulling bass patterns from Fender Jazz basses and what looked like a Fender Thunderbird bass, a Tele bass and a silver, glittery Les Paul-like bass that resembled the one played years ago by Babys singer and solo artist John Waite. Lee’s bass breaks in “Red Barchetta,” one of Rush’s Top 5 numbers of all time about a young car fan embarking on a winding chase in a relative’s restored, antique vehicle, paid respect to the studio version while leaving room for Lee to add-lib a bit. Lee’s bass tone and volume held just the right amount of compression, distortion and high-end spikiness.
Also dropping jaws, as expected, were the stagecraft of Lifeson and Peart, with Lifeson’s underrated abilities performing in seemingly countless musical styles. Lifeson’s solos included quick blasts of melodic rock, alternative crunch and progressive-rock majesty. He strummed, slashed and bent notes from his Gibson and Fender arsenal, hitting all the cues with professional ease.
Despite his astonishing guitar work, Lifeson seemed overtly serious for the show’s first hour. Initially, the blond musician rarely made eye contact with his two compatriots, mostly staying huddled in the area of his microphone and large pedal board. Later, Lifeson seemed to feel more social – he did his trademark, mid-stage joking and laughing with Lee and he exchanged “Three Stooges”-like facial expressions with Peart.
Affectionately dubbed “the Professor” by his band partners and fans, Peart added jazzy touches to his drum solo, slapping his sticks at his cymbals and showcasing his double-bass drum footwork that surely is difficult for most drummers still in their 20s and 30s.
Dressed in red jumpsuits like the ones seen on the back of Rush’s 1981 “Moving Pictures” LP, Rush’s busy road crew continually shifted and swapped out guitar and bass amps while the band played. The change in speaker stacks reflected the era of the song being played at the moment – Fender Bassman rigs and Marshall stacks stood behind Lee and Lifeson for much of the show before being replaced by one bulky guitar speaker and two smaller bass cabinets to represent Rush’s mid-1970s beginnings.
Before the concert and during its short intermissions, numerous fans pondered the future of Rush.
“Man, they say this is the last tour,” said one man to his friend. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” the friend answered without taking his eyes off the stage. “You never know, I guess.”
If the new tour indeed is Rush’s farewell to their followers, then Geddy, Alex and Peart are going out in style. Now in their early 60s, the cats in Rush still possess the instrumental skill levels and joyfully demonstrate a sheer endurance that 97 percent of the world’s bands will forever lack. Rush and roll, indeed.