Rush - Live at Verizon Encore Park

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On December 13, 1981, I saw RUSH play at the Roanoke, VA Civic Center.  The band was fairly new to me, and my feet were barely wet in arena rock shows.  I was standing about 20’ from the stage, and I was fairly blown away by new sounds and the few guys that made them all.  "Exit Stage Left," their live CD they were promoting at the time, remains my favorite Rush recording as it's laden with that memory.  

Twenty nine years later, I saw them again under a cloud of doubts.  Could Geddy Lee hit the high notes?  Sure, they still had all their original members, but would they be any good?  Weren’t they just another aging band trying to bank some retirement funds by going through the motions of trotting out old hits for fans who could gift them with their disposable income?  As it turned out, no.  The band earned their wages plus some.

So, here they are, on tour again celebrating, I suppose, their 40th year with yet another tour.  And, there’s a capacity crowd of 12,000 returning to hear them again, many sitting on wet grass after a drenching storm.  It’s been five years since I saw them last, but (somehow) the crowd changed.  I could have sworn that 99% of the crowd were balding men wearing black RUSH T-shirts from a tour some time prior.  The remaining 1% were women, who also wore the same T-shirts.  Well, male pattern baldness was in no short supply, but the crowd actually turned colorful in garb, and, GASP!, the female population might have hit 15%!  Maybe it’s all the concerts that PBS puts on for fundraisers, but something’s working there.

 One sign of a band that maintains a sense of currency is their production investments.  Once again, they pleased with very entertaining, self-deprecating videos at the beginning, break, encore, and close of the show.  It’s funny stuff, and… I’ll probably need to add another live DVD to the collection if I want to see them again.  Or, persuade a friend to do so…

First, I’ll point out that sitting at a reserved table is awesome.  It brings with it VIP parking, space to move around rather than the shoulder-to-shoulder plastic seats, and an elevation advantage over others so that passersby don’t distract (Unless, that is, it’s a woman at a RUSH concert.  Their numbers on the increase, they remain a rare species).  But, you sacrifice a bit in terms of proximity to the stage.  So, here’s my camera’s perspective, which more than slightly exaggerates the distance.

This zoom shot feels about right, though.  The video boards can certainly project to the folks in the back.  But back to those production values.  Pyrotechnics (loud), animated video sequences during songs, a massive lighting contraption, minions who wander about the stage adding or subtracting stage fixtures (fake amplifiers, a popcorn machine, washing machines…), professional camera movements to capture the band as they play… it was all very well orchestrated.

Larger than life

Oh, yeah.  It’s a concert. Maybe I should say something about the music.  First, it was loud, louder than I remember.  But, it certainly verified an often repeated remark that it’s amazing how much sound three guys can make.  I can’t speak for the sound quality overall.  Everyone should know that if you’re seated anywhere near the sound mixing board, it should be perfect.  But off to the side, everything sounded great except for Lee’s vocals, which despite remaining surprisingly strong and agile, were often unfathomable (for those who don’t have them  memorized).  And, there was an odd ringing at times that I’d have to attribute to the guitar which made the overall sound undeservedly dense at times.  Criticism over!

Roll the Bones

Without a current album to promote, the band retraced their work chronologically, beginning with the most recent, squeezing it into a generous three hour set.  The first three songs were from Clockwork Angels, their most recent, and they more than hold their own with the band’s product the prior 20 years, which suffered from a move towards more contemporary sounds via increased keyboards.  But, the songs they selected – like “Roll the Bones,” “Distant Early Warning,” and “Subdivisions” played very well.

Following the break, the band returned with songs from their early/classic period, which very much reminded everyone that their best music is born of instrumental virtuosity for all three members, plus challenging arrangements.  “Jacob’s Ladder” was my favorite of the evening, but sections of “Cygnus X-1,” “Xanadu,” and the 2112 Overture were a witness to their harder prog rock tendencies (particularly Lee’s very aggressive bass style) that the vast majority of fans likely favor.  “Cygnus” also provided space for the requisite (never obligatory) Neil Peart drum solo.  His kit didn’t include the 360o set that I last saw him with, instead making room for chimes.  He remains one of the finest rock drummers ever, and, somehow, at age 62, doesn’t break a sweat or, pun intended, miss a beat – of which there were a gazillion.

All eyes on Peart!

At the last show, Alex Lifeson seemed to clown around a lot, interacting with the crowd in front of him.  This time, it seemed the music rarely gave him the chance.  You become aware how many great riffs he’s created over the years, and it’s amazing how a guy with such large fingers can so quickly and cleanly pick his notes up and down the fret board.

Otherwise, the R40 tour seemed to be a great excuse for the Lifeson and Lee to empty their equipment closet.  They had quite the variety of guitars, including two double necks.  Five years ago, Lifeson may have played four guitars.  He probably had ten this time.

A smart phone spectacular!

For the encore, the band finally got to a couple songs off of their first album.  It was fitting for their countdown, but it only demonstrated how far their music grew in the years since.  The arrangements were so simplistic that Peart didn’t have to do much except use the bass and snare drums (but, of course, he did). 

Finally, the show looked like it was fun for the band.  Aside from the humor in their videos, it’s easy to see the unforced camaraderie of three guys who have been professionally wed for a long, long time.   They seemed to be having fun.  After all, there was no reason for a R40 tour except that they wanted to do it.

Set list:

Set 1:   The World Is...The World Is

The Anarchist
Clockwork Angels
Headlong Flight  (with Drumbastica mini drum solo)
Far Cry
The Main Monkey Business
One Little Victory
Roll the Bones
Distant Early Warning
Set 2:

No Country for Old Hens
Tom Sawyer
Red Barchetta
The Spirit of Radio
Jacob's Ladder
Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres Part I: Prelude
Cygnus X-1 (The Voyage Part 1 & 3 with drum solo)
Closer to the Heart
2112 Part I: Overture
2112 Part II: The Temples of Syrinx
2112 Part IV: Presentation
2112 Part VII: Grand Finale
Encore:  Mel's Rock Pile starring Eugene Levy (intro video)

Lakeside Park
What You're Doing
Working Man  (with "Garden Road" outro)
Exit Stage Left (outro video)

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