Much of the history of Rush is about the famed Canadian progressive rock trio hearing marketing advice to boost their mainstream popularity and doing exactly the opposite, which is a theme that’s continued on their current 40th anniversary tour. The band has talked at times about this likely being its final large-scale tour, but while many groups would go over the top to emphasize a one-time-only farewell and drive ticket sales, the members of Rush have barely mentioned it.
Other bands might have sold this tour as a jukebox chance to hear their greatest hits, but at least in Vancouver last Friday, Rush’s approach was staggeringly different; they played music from across their 40 years with the current lineup (drummer Neil Peart joined guitarist Alex Lifeson and vocalist/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee in 1974, replacing initial drummer John Rutsey, but didn’t appear on an album until 1975’s Fly By Night), and even did so in reverse chronological order, but often opted for longer, less-radio-friendly tracks and selections from albums that didn’t do as well commercially.
Even their on-stage banter with the audience defied the conventions and skipped the clichés. As they told Rolling Stone‘s Brian Hiatt in a June article (amazingly, the band’s first Rolling Stone cover ever despite their decades of platinum album sales), they’ve never seen their band as a product, and they have no desire to trot out the “greatest city in the world” lines:
“In their early years, opening for practically every major band of the 1970s, Peart and his bandmates — singer-bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson — were disturbed by what the drummer would later describe as the ‘sound of salesmen.’ ‘We would hear them give the same rap to the audience every night,’ says Peart. ‘ ’This is the greatest rock city in the world, man!’ That was creepy. I despise the cynical dishonesty.’ They did get along with the guys in Kiss. ‘We would get high with Ace Frehley in his hotel room and make him laugh,’ Lee recalls, ‘and they were a really good influence on us in terms of learning to put on a show.’
They were taken aback, however, by Gene Simmons’ and Paul Stanley’s unabashed view of Kiss as a product. ‘I don’t want to knock them,’ says Peart. ‘But once I was in a little restaurant in Kansas, and a guy with Kiss Army tattoos kept playing Kiss songs on the jukebox. He believed in a marketing campaign, swallowed it as religion. He was like a convert to Scientology.’
Ultimately, Peart wants the freaky, purist kid he once was to be proud of him. ‘It’s about being your own hero,’ he says. ‘I set out to never betray the values that 16-year-old had, to never sell out, to never bow to the man. A compromise is what I can never accept.'”
That uncompromising aesthetic has seen Rush stay a long way from conventional popular approaches, and it’s meant that some acts with more flash tend to be promoted over them. That was illustrated Friday in Vancouver, where Rush played Rogers Arena (capacity of around 19,000), while young pop stars One Direction took the stage next door at the larger B.C. Place (capacity of around 54,000, depending on setup). It would be tough to find a greater contrast in styles than the radio-focused, marketing-heavy boy band and the old rockers who have openly defied most attempts to make them more marketable, but popularity isn’t always everything; One Direction delivered a short set Friday following an opening act, and their performance was panned as seeming effortless “because there wasn’t a whole lot of effort put into it.”
Meanwhile, Rush played for almost three hours, provided “a sheer onslaught of instrumental prowess” and “crank[ed] it like it’s 1975,” overcoming Peart’s tendonitis and Lifeson’s arthritis (big reasons why they plan for this to be their last large-scale tour) to deliver an incredible show.
Following an opening animation that demonstrated their penchant for funny self-deprecation, Rush started the show off with a furious rendition of “The Anarchist” from 2013’s Clockwork Angels (a steampunk concept album, if you needed more proof that these guys aren’t focused on mainstream commercial success, but a brilliant one). They then segued straight into “Headlong Flight” off the same album, complete with a remarkable drum solo from Peart that fired up the crowd. After a quick introduction, they went to 2007’s Snakes and Arrows with “Far Cry,” a driving hard-rock anthem that showed off Lifeson’s guitar skills, then gave Lee a chance to shine on the bass-driven instrumental “The Main Monkey Business.” Following that, they headed to 2002’s Vapour Trails for the catchy “One Little Victory.”
This start wasn’t necessarily conventional, as many bands would have chosen to include bigger hits in the opening and probably wouldn’t have played an instrumental so early, but it wasn’t a long way off the map either. After that, though, things got a little further from the norm.
The choice of album-opening track “Animate” off of 1993’s Counterparts was a stellar one; the album as a whole has peaks and valleys, but “Animate” shows off some of Peart’s best drumming, nicely combines Lee’s bass and keyboard parts, and works in several interconnected riffs from Lifeson. Then it was time for the title track from 1991’s Roll The Bones, an impressive anthem against fatalism that incorporated video cameos from celebrities like Paul Rudd (whose I Love You, Man character was a Rush superfan) and The Trailer Park Boys (who kidnapped Lifeson in an episode).
From there, they skipped over Presto, Hold Your Fire and Power Windows (the latter omission’s especially notable, as “The Big Money” in particular is a regular concert standard and certainly would have been featured in a traditional jukebox concert) in favour of 1984’s Grace Under Pressure and “Distant Early Warning.” The keyboard-heavy track made for a great segue into “Losing It” (off of 1982’s Signals) with special guest violinist Ben Mink, the quietest and most contemplative track of the evening. This might have been the biggest departure from your typical classic rock concert, but it was effective and interesting to hear live.
After bringing it down for “Losing It,” though, Rush found the perfect transition to end their first act. They stuck with the keyboard-heavy motif, but ratcheted up the tempo and volume, going into the incredibly popular “Subdivisions” from the same album. “Subdivisions” has radio-friendly length and music, and the crowd went wild for it, but the lyrics perfectly encapsulate the band’s defiance of convention and popularity, and their choice to be cast out rather than cool. As such, it was a great way to wrap up an opening act that saw them play a few hits (but not their biggest ones) and a lot of more unconventional selections.