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You’re An Idiot If You Don’t Think Rush Is the Best Live Band in the World

A suite in eight parts.

Photo by Alyssa Herrman

Overture

I went most of my adult life largely ignoring Rush. Yes, the same high school buddy who turned me on to Steely Dan used to serenade me with the bass harmonic intro from “Red Barchetta” in the attic space above his parents’ garage. Not long after, a college friend sat me down with a loaded bowl and made me admit that “Temple of the Syrinx” is legitimately heavy. For almost half my life, Moving Pictures and 2112 sat dusty, neglected, lost in my vinyl collection like a rusting guitar hidden behind a sacred waterfall.

When Rush came through Portland on the Vapor Trails tour in 2002, I nearly went. I was curious but decided to catch Slayer at a small club instead. I figured that Neil Peart and Dave Lombardo were in the same town on the same night, and since I have free will, I made a choice.

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Then in 2004, my dad—a guy who has seen the Rolling Stones, the Stooges, the MC5, and Black Sabbath—said to me, “You know, I’ve never seen Rush.” I was in the same boat, and figured that catching a dinosaur act of that caliber with my old man would be a good time. And hell, I’d missed them the last time and every tour before.

As we were cruising toward the handicapped parking area, my dad rolled a joint with one hand while driving us between two security checkpoints. I was impressed. But not nearly as impressed as when the house lights came down and the R30 tour began under the roof of a giant shed in Southern Washington state. Surrounded by white people of all ages and stripes—cowboys, Microsoft engineers, kids, parents, and grandparents—I witnessed a revelation.

Live music is my business. No exaggeration, I see at least 100 shows per year. Watching R30 flipped a switch. In the cannon gale of that immaculate Rush sound, I realized that any chance I have to see Rush means enjoying the best show in any given calendar year. This July I had the pleasure of reviewing the R40 tour in both Seattle and Portland, marking my eighth and ninth Rush concerts in the last ten years. Below are seven reasons why they are still the best live band on the planet.

I. Rush Are The Best Musicians

This one’s a no-brainer. Guitar Player magazine has awarded Geddy Lee the Best Rock Bass award six times. He’s also in their Hall of Fame. Drummer Neil Peart has been named Best Rock Drummer in Modern Drummer magazine NINE times. For my money though, the secret weapon is guitarist Alex Lifeson. He’s been getting swept under the rug for decades, but hearing him play live, on stage, you’ll get the sort of shivers up your neck that you’d expect from David Gilmour.

All three of these guys perform everything live. Any sampled sounds are triggered by whichever band member happens to have a free digit at that given millisecond. No guest musicians are on stage or behind a curtain. Geddy is playing bass with his hands, synth with his feet, and singing lead. Neil Peart often has two complete drum kits including tubular bells and an array of wood blocks, chimes, and more toms and cymbals than most mammals can count. It’s absolutely nuts and you can watch endless YouTube videos and concert DVDs to affirm that no member of Rush is ever fucking around or phoning it in.

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II. They Play The Hits

As self-indulgent as some Rush tour set lists have been, no one ever walks away without hearing “Tom Sawyer,” “Spirit of Radio,” “Subdivisions” or “Working Man.”

III. They Dig Deep

On this latest R40 tour, Rush played from its catalog in reverse chronological order. By the second set (these guys play for over three hours with no opening act), longtime fans were treated to ALL of the epics from the ‘70s, including “Cygnus” (both books), “Xanadu” “Jacob’s Ladder” and the “2112” suite. Jaws were on the fucking floor. Then they came back with a four-song encore of early nuggets from the first three albums.

IV. They Have A Sense Of Humor

Pretty much everyone knows that Canadians are goofy, and Rush is no exception. While it may seem from afar that progressive rock is a sterile affair created by aloof musicians in a lab, Rush seems to contradict this constantly on stage. They pull faces at each other, run around the stage, and roll out a rich backlog of videos between songs. Alex Lifeson has made several cameos on Trailerpark Boys; Bubbles and the rest returned the favor, appearing on screen to lip synch the rap from “Roll the Bones.” Cartman from South Park pretends he’s Geddy Lee. Eugene Levy recorded a special stand-up routine to introduce the second set at R40, suggesting that the band really ought to consider, “adding a few more members. Some horns, maybe.” There’s something brilliant about playing on this level, and not once coming across as po-faced as Maynard Keenan, Thom Yorke, or Morrissey.

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V. Lasers And Lights

After four decades of touring, Rush knows how to “mach schau.” Now I’m not going to argue that Geddy is as viscerally compelling a performer as, say, Nick Cave. But he knows that. And Nick is not playing three instruments while he’s climbing down into the crowd to get groped by the plebes. So what Rush does—aside from playing extremely complex music with only three musicians—is employ a highly sophisticated light show. Lasers, pyrotechnics, explosive charges and synchronized video make for a stage performance every bit as visually engaging as anything conjured by Tool or Muse.

VI. Drum Solos

Drum solos may seem passé, but you will change your mind when you watch Neil Peart deliver one. Even at 62, the guy absolutely pulverizes his drums with power, precision, and nuance. Once lambasted for playing the same solo for years, he now changes it up from show to show. Did I mention that while the other guys fly or bus in, he rides his BMW motorcycle to each gig with an escort of Hell’s Angels? Bad. Ass.

VII. They Actually Like Each Other

Nothing I write or you hear will make you a Rush convert unless you take the chance to catch them live. But short of an expensive floor seat, the best possible gateway to understanding the band is not any particular song or album: it’s the 2010 documentary, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage which is generally viewable on Netflix. This film does a remarkable job of humanizing the guys in the band, and displaying what an incredibly positive dynamic they have maintained over the years. It’s been the same three guys since 1975. No breaks-ups or reunions. No Behind The Music-style drama. Just three nerds from Canada who decided to march to their own beat, travel, make music, work hard, and never surrender.

With forty years of mastery under its belt, Rush has assumed control, yet remains closer to the heart than ever.

Follow Nathan Carson on Twitter.