I saw Rush in Vancouver on Friday night and it one of the best concerts I have ever seen. Like, top three, at least. Unlike most of my favourite bands from the 70s, Rush’s live gigs have actually improved as they’ve aged. I should say: I’m making that judgement purely on the basis of live albums and concert films. Being a Rush superfan of a younger vintage, this was my first time seeing them live. And since it looks like it may also be my last, I figured I’d recap the setlist and work out exactly how close my one Rush live experience came to being the Platonic ideal of a Rush concert.
I suppose a spoiler warning would be apropos? I mean, I’m sure they switch out songs from their setlist, but if you’re seeing Rush later in the tour and you want the entire conceit of the concert to be a surprise (evidently you haven’t read the big Rolling Stone feature — do that), maybe don’t read on.
The premise of the R40 show is that the band moves backwards in time, from their most recent album to their 1975 debut, choosing at least one song from the majority of their albums. As they play, a crew of technicians constantly changes the sets behind them to reflect the looks of Rush stage shows through the years — from the dryers of recent tours, to the Marshall stacks of the 70s, to the single amplifier on a chair of their high school dance band days.
It’s an openly nostalgic approach, suitable to a big farewell tour. But, the fact that they have the guts to start their set with a bunch of new songs showcases how much more rocket sauce they’ve got than most of their contemporaries. To wit, let’s take this album by album. The following is based on the setlist at the Vancouver concert I attended, on July 17, 2015.
2012: Clockwork Angels
My take: As far as I’m concerned, Clockwork Angels is a better album than 2112. As we’ll see, that’s partly a matter of me just not liking 2112 that much, but also: Clockwork Angels is very, very strong. If we accept that bands in their fourth decade of existence should be allowed to just make the kind of music that they make, even if it is somewhat anachronistic (pun?), then we can’t ask for better than this. A near masterpiece.
The R40 selections: “The Anarchist,” followed by “Headlong Flight” with a brief drum solo
My picks: I would have started the set with “Headlong Flight” instead of “The Anarchist.” Sure, it doesn’t have a crushing riff right off the top, but it’s a far better song — one of Rush’s best ever. Plus, there’s poetry to starting your 40th anniversary set with a song that’s centred around the line “I wish that I could live it all again,” then proceeding to travel backwards through your catalogue. My second pick would have been “The Garden,” though it would have been weird at this point in the setlist. Basically, well played.
2007: Snakes and Arrows
My take: It’s uneven, but there’s a lot to like. I can’t say I listen to it much. In retrospect, it seems like an early indication that Rush was still a band capable of making an album as good as Clockwork Angels turned out to be. In itself, though, it’s nothing earthshaking.
The R40 selections: “Far Cry” and “The Main Monkey Business”
My picks: They could have left it at “Far Cry.” My second choice from this album would have been “The Way the Wind Blows,” but one track would have cut it. Still, can’t say I was bored.
2002: Vapor Trails
My take: Not a favourite. I admire it more for its emblematic status as Rush’s comeback record after their tragedy-induced hiatus than for its music.
The R40 selection: “One Little Victory”
My pick: I have to say, as much as I don’t love the album as a whole, I do like “One Little Victory.” I was kind of hoping to hear it, if only because of its significance to the band’s story: it’s the song that made Rush realize that they could still be Rush. Without it, they might not have hit 30, let alone 40. Geddy even acknowledged as much in his preparatory remarks.
1996: Test for Echo
My take: This is a very boring album.
The R40 selections: Nothing
My pick: Skipping this was the right choice. I mean, the acoustic version of “Resist” that they did on the Vapor Trails tour would have been fine, but if it means less music from Permanent Waves or A Farewell to Kings, no.
My take: Counterparts is great. In the well-populated set of “good Rush albums,” it’s solidly in the middle of the pack.
The R40 selection: “Animate”
My pick: “Leave That Thing Alone.” I love “Animate,” and I’m not complaining. But I would have liked to hear a more substantial showcase for Geddy’s bass playing. I realize that they’ve played “Leave That Thing Alone” recently. But remember, I didn’t see that tour.
1991: Roll the Bones
My take: See Snakes and Arrows. Uneven, but occasionally great. The harbinger of a better album to come.
The R40 selection: “Roll the Bones”
My pick: Yup, that was the right choice. I’ve always hated that awful rap verse for marring an otherwise fantastic song. But they solved that problem, this time round. All it took was a lip-synching Peter Dinklage. Who knew.
My take: Very nearly a bad album.
The R40 selection: Nothing
My pick: Rightly skipped. “The Pass” would have been fine. But, as with “Resist,” it’s not preferable to more cuts from their better albums.
1987: Hold Your Fire
My take: I like synthpop Rush far more than the fan consensus. There’s some awful music on this (“Tai Shan” is the worst track Rush ever recorded), but far more of it is very good. We’ve already covered two albums I like far less than this. There will be more, yet.
The R40 selection: Nothing
My pick: “Force Ten.” My one real disappointment at this concert was that they skimped on the 80s material. I’m sure it’s because their last tour was heavy on it. But again: I wasn’t there. “Force Ten” is one of Rush’s best songs. So is “Time Stand Still.” Would have been nice to hear one.
1985: Power Windows
My take: One of Rush’s strongest, most consistent albums. The fact that this isn’t universally acclaimed as a masterpiece is early-onset rockism in action. Let them play synths, for god’s sake. The songs are as good as ever.
The R40 selection: Nothing
My picks: “Mystic Rhythms.” “Grand Designs.” “The Big Money.” Anything. I would have gladly sacrificed a 70s cut for a song off Power Windows.
1984: Grace Under Pressure
My take: Another masterpiece. It’s not the warm embrace that some other great Rush albums are, but when I’m in the mood for weightier fare, this is my go-to.
The R40 selection: “Distant Early Warning”
My pick: Yeah, that’s the one. I actually didn’t anticipate how happy I would be to hear this song. I guess there’s a reason it’s on a million live albums. It kills.
My take: It’s a bit of a comedown after the miraculous stylistic transition that happened between 1978 and 1981, but it has some of their best songs. (I’m quickly realizing that almost every Rush album has some of their best songs. The problem with the weaker ones is usually just inconsistency.)
The R40 selections: “Losing It” and “Subdivisions”
My picks: “Subdivisions” was a given. I assume that my lack of prior experience with Rush concerts has something to do with how badly I wanted to hear the hits. But also, “Subdivisions” is a song that every Rush fan in the world seems to identify with personally. I’m no exception. “Losing It” wouldn’t have been my choice for a second Signals cut — that would have been “The Analog Kid” — but having the track’s original violinist Ben Mink drop by for “Losing It” made it totally worth it.
1981: Moving Pictures
My take: Deserving of every accolade lavished upon it. My top five Rush albums fluctuate, but my top three are solid, and this is one of them. The hits never get old, and the album tracks are — say it with me — among the best Rush songs.
The R40 selections: “Tom Sawyer” and “YYZ”
My picks: If we’re going to do the Big Hit/Album Cut combo, I would have gone with “Limelight” and “Red Barchetta” over these two. The latter is actually perfect. Few songs can match it for sheer catharsis — in the lyrics and music alike. And “Limelight” would have been as great an opener for the second half as “Tom Sawyer” — and I’m a sucker for that guitar solo. But, I must admit, “YYZ” is a showstopper.
1980: Permanent Waves
My take: The best Rush album. A flawless masterpiece, and the greatest transitional album ever made. After years of willful obscurantism (which often yielded fabulous results), Permanent Waves is the sound of the band opening themselves up to anybody willing to listen, without changing their driving ethic in the slightest. This album is the warm embrace that Grace Under Pressure isn’t.
The R40 selections: “The Spirit of Radio,” “Natural Science” and “Jacob’s Ladder”
My picks: I could not have reasonably expected Rush to play more than half of my favourite album, but they did and it was fantastic. Incidentally, those would have been exactly my three picks. “The Spirit of Radio” was the highlight of the concert. Such a pleasure to see that the band still enjoys playing that song. It is, after all, one of the most perfect rock songs ever composed.
My take: This one rounds out my usual top three. It’s the culmination of the band’s fruitful dalliance with full-on progressive rock in the vein of Yes and Genesis — music I quite love, and which populated the band’s pre-show/intermission playlist. After this, Rush would go on to become the first genuine post-progressive rock band, using the insights of the progressive movement to produce a new and idiosyncratic sort of ambitious rock music for the 80s. But here, they prove that they can do straight-up prog as well as anybody.
The R40 selection: the prelude from “Cygnus X-1 Book 2,” with a drum solo
My pick: “La Villa Strangiato” was one of my top picks for the concert, but I can’t say I’m disappointed that they took the less predictable route. Neil’s (spectacular) drum solo was clothed in psychedelic synth pads reflecting the mood of “Cygnus X-1,” and it served as a bridge between that epic’s two parts. So, basically a 15-minute “Cygnus” medley in reverse. Nobody ought to complain about that.
1977: A Farewell to Kings
My take: This is another of those inconsistent albums with many masterful songs. I’m a big fan of this version of Rush — the proggy version. But they’d do it better one year later.
The R40 selections: An excerpt from “Cygnus X-1 Book 1,” “Closer to the Heart,” “Xanadu”
My picks: “Xanadu” is second only to “La Villa Strangiato” in terms of excellent prog from Rush. An absolute highlight of the show. The extension of “Cygnus” back to its origins here was much appreciated. I could have lived without “Closer to the Heart.” As much as I generally love Rush’s singles, this one doesn’t connect with me at all. The lyric is borderline offensive in its elitism (more of which, shortly) and the riff isn’t one of their strongest. It would be a good sing-along moment if Geddy’s tessitura didn’t make it impossible for at least half (oh, who are we kidding — most) of the audience to sing. The title track would have been a welcome surprise. Still, “Xanadu” and part one of “Cygnus” are the best music this album has.
My take: Look, I get it. I do. “2112” is a song about an oppressed young man in a dystopian future who finds freedom in rock and roll and whose dreams are crushed by malevolent authority figures. I understand why it struck a chord. But it’s bullshit. It could have been a lot more troubling, had young Neil more fully processed his reading of Ayn Rand. But, as it stands, “2112” is a high school persecution fantasy set to occasionally interesting hard rock. And, the less said about the other songs, the better.
The R40 selection: Excerpts from “2112,” including the overture, “The Temples of Syrinx,” “Presentation” and “Grand Finale”
My pick: Okay, let’s be reasonable. There’s no way you can’t represent 2112 on a Rush 40th anniversary tour. And most of that audience was losing their minds at this point in the show. So, I’ll concede that this isn’t a skippable album. I would have been content for them to be finished after “The Temples of Syrinx,” though.
1975: Caress of Steel
My take: One of my least favourite Rush albums. It marks a decisive turn towards prog, but it is still basically nondescript hard rock in bigger bottles.
The R40 selection: “Lakeside Park”
My pick: “Bastille Day.” It’s the only halfway decent track — and it’s worth noting that “Headlong Flight” improved vastly on the formula set out in this song. (Listen to the way that they both switch in and out of half time.) I would have foregone this album altogether, were it not for the clever conceit of this part of the concert. After “2112,” the band leaves the stage, as if to end the show. Then, Eugene Levy shows up via video, in character as a tacky club announcer. He informs the audience that the headliner will be along shortly. But first — there’s an opening act: a young band whose career is already on the skids, and who badly need to hire some additional band members if they’re going to make it. The R40 show is taking us back to Rush’s infamous “Down the Tubes” tour of 1975-76, where they played small venues for indifferent audiences. Had 2112 failed to connect, it would have been the end of the road. Thus, when the band shows up to play “Lakeside Park,” after having gone through all of the classic tracks they made after surviving this difficult phase, the song takes on an emblematic significance, similar to “One Little Victory.” It’s not so much that it’s a good song, but it was a nice touch.
1975: Fly by Night
My take: By now, you’ll realize that early Rush is not my bag. But this is my favourite of their first four albums by a significant margin.
The R40 selection: “Anthem”
My pick: “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.” I’d ditch “2112” for this, but that’s just me. “Anthem” has more half-digested Randianisms, but it’s a fun tune, at least.
My take: Rush’s debut album doesn’t offer any indication that this band would one day produce transcendent music like “Xanadu,” “The Spirit of Radio” or “Headlong Flight.” But it’s a fun little period piece with some good riffs.
The R40 selections: “What You’re Doing” and “Working Man”
My pick: At this point in the concert, nobody’s complaining about anything Rush chooses to play. They’ve more than proven themselves one of the best live acts ever. They’ve demonstrated that their entire 40-year catalogue contains worthwhile music. And, right in this moment, in the midsection of “Working Man,” Alex Lifeson is shredding with reckless abandon over Geddy Lee’s breakneck bassline while Neil Peart beats time between impossible fills. They are beyond restraint, because they are above restraint. They are better than restraint. And when the last chord ends, the audience is not applauding Rush’s fortitude or the fact that they’re beating the odds at 40 years running. They’re applauding in appreciation for what is genuinely one of the best shows anybody will ever see.
I’m not going to tally up the score. It seems irrelevant, somehow. I saw Rush. It was awesome. The end.