Seeing Rush headlining London’s 20,000 capacity O2 Arena conjures a nagging feeling of displacement that borders on disbelief. Rush are a huge band in every sense of the word; their talent is enormous, the scale of their music preposterous, their record sales unquestionable, and yet the sight of these three Canadian prog-rock legends playing to a feverish audience in a cavernous arena can only be described as surreal.
Rush are undeniably nerdy, fully embracing their “so uncool they’re cool reputation” (in a post show video Geddy Lee jokes that he thought he saw seven girls in attendance tonight, to which Neil Peart replies “wow, that must be a record”), but nevertheless thousands of fans from all over the UK have embraced Rush and in record numbers.
There is a pervading sense of pride to be derived from that fact that a band who are so fundamentally odd, so intensely challenging and so wilfully and knowingly niche can not only exist, but can continually thrive away from rock and pop’s mainstream.
In keeping with the Rush aesthetic tonight’s show can be viewed in two entirely different lights; with an all encompassing three hour long set Rush are either super serving their devotees or they are erecting a daunting barrier between the uninitiated and those in the Rush fraternity. Realistically, however, Rush are simply being themselves; indulging and revealing in their own OTT urges.
The evening starts on an electric note with Rush firing out their second biggest UK hit “Spirit Of The Radio” whose quick switches between wiry oscillating riffage and booming stadium power chords prove undeniable. From then on in we witness the later-day Rush enslaved to the artistic agenda of the age rather than striking out on their own.
“Time Stand Still” is painfully 80s with airy synths, driving guitar work and a panoramic MOR chorus; it’s the sort of song built for arenas but were it not for Geddy Lee’s fleet fingered bass flourishes the track would be devoid on any distinguishing characteristics.
“Stick It Out” is more muscular, it grinds and it crunches with stereotypical mid-90s alternative aplomb. It’s a dark and brutal affair that sees Rush sounding more like Queens Of The Stone Age than you’d ever have imagined possible.
2007’s Snakes and Arrows is represented by “Faithless” and “Workin’ Them Angels”, two tracks lacking neither stadium ambition nor scale, but instead a spark of ingenuity, as they fall flat next to snaky grooves and delicious hooks of “Freewill” and the raw bluster of newee “BU2B”.
Rush’s opening gambit proves hit and miss, relying on lesser known (in the UK) and overly polished material. There are flourishes of individual technical brilliance but they prove too few and far between as Geddy struggles to find his range consistently.
After a fifteen-minute interval Rush return and all the flaws of the first hour have been brushed aside. Moving Pictures was made to be played live as the band attacks the material.
“Tom Sawyer” is less preposterous and less polished, becoming loose and raw with Alex Lifeson smashing out each thundering chord and warping each wiry note. “Red Barchetta” becomes dark and resounding; as Lifeson uncorks the solo Rush appear less polished prog and more snarling metal.
“YYZ” cements the transition marrying primal beat-downs to one of rock’s most chant-able riffs. “Limelight” shows that Rush are still in the mood for some intellectual anthemia; perfectly encapsulates Rush’s post-interval improvement, not only is the music terser, Geddy Lee’s stadium sized hooks are more pointed and more illuminating as he reflects upon detachment of fame (“One must put up barriers, to keep one’s self in tact”).
From here on in Rush simply can’t fail as the momentum only continues to build. First Neil Peart stuns the audience with a sprawling seven-minute drum solo that hops from traditional prog-rock timing patterns to 21st Century drum machine assisted rhythms (think Radiohead at 1000 beats per minute) into a classic jazz timing. It’s a stunning feat of sheer craftsmanship and it’s only matched by the incomparable grandeur (lunacy?) of “2112: Overture & Temples Of Syrinx”.
By the time tonight’s encore rolls around Rush have vanquished the tired clichés that have continually undermined progressive rock, not by running from their own self-indulgence, but by embracing it. They gave us the endless drum solos, the dystopian sci-fi epic and the finger shredding bass lines, all the things that should scare people off, they included it all, but they beefed it up, creating a brutal sensory onslaught that defied the fundamentally oddness of the compositions.
The finale was suitably spectacular with a live reworking of “La Villa Stangiato” allowing Peart and Lee to exchange quick fire drum fills and incomprehensible bass groves while Lifeson unleashed a furious fret board assault that married awe inspiring speed to pin point precision as his guitar spiralled and squealed. After that, the distorted post-Zeppelin thundering’s of “Working Man” almost served as cool down track, a chance for the crowd to sing-along and take stock of the frankly ridiculous display of technical skill that they had just witnessed.
Rush’s Time Machine Tour is frankly perplexing, a true tale of two halves, it could be the most electrifying and awe inspiring two hour set imaginable but instead it’s a bloated three hour juggernaut. Despite it’s flaws, however, tonight’s show perfectly represented Rush; a band who will never scale their show down, who will always favour excess over restraint, who won’t choose between the past and the present, happily running the risk alienating the majority in an attempt to please every single one of their fans.
It’s a bizarre contradiction, but so is seeing Rush play the bastion of the mainstream, the home of Rihanna and the Kings Of Leon, it doesn’t really make sense, it’s impossible to explain, but when all is said and done your left with a sense of both pride and mourning. Pride that such a strange little band could achieve such a feat but mourning because it seems unfathomable for a contemporary band of the same ilk to ever reach these heady heights.
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