CONCERT REVIEW: Rush’s R40 in Toronto, June 17, 2015

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The closest we plebes can usually get to famous rock bands.

by Allister Thompson

Rush’s R40 tour spectacle, which features video footage and lasers a-plenty, rolled into the local hockey and basketball arena for what may be the band’s last major kick at the can, though being cynical, I rather doubt that. They still play and sing so well, so why would they stop if they’re having fun? I’m sure the rumours started outside the band have helped whip up a frenzy, though.

Make Your Own Taste’s affection for our national rock institution is well established: in this comprehensive article; this list; and this list here. We love Rush! Nice guys, smart tunes, great melodies, not a whiff of pretension. Rush exists in its own special category, beloved of proggers, geeks, nerds (true nerds, not hipster ones), scientists, accountants, regular joes … a little bit of everyone. The attendees were typical of a Rush show; lots of older gents but also young musos, and plenty of father and son/family teams. It’s truly a multigenerational affair. Even a few chicks here and there (including two women in my party, Mrs. Taste being one of them).

I had not bothered to check out set lists in advance. Turns out the R40 show is organized in reverse order, chronologically. After a lengthy, humorous video intro (the band’s sense of humour is quite something), the show started, sort of unusually, with a blast of three of the proggiest tracks from the excellent Clockwork Angels, the most recent studio album. That was probably a questionable pacing choice, considering that with 20,000 people present, there were likely a lot of fair-weather fans there who haven’t heard a note past 1991. And they didn’t even play the melodic single, “The Wreckers”, instead playing three of the most prog-metally tracks. But then this is Rush; they’ve always played what they want, not necessarily what you want to hear.

Set 1 then progressed all the way into the grunge years, when Rush’s nineties/early 2000s albums made them sort of contemporaries of newer proggy hard rock bands like Tool and Dream Theater. I must admit to not having a ton affection for that era, aside from a great track here and there; still, while I’d have preferred to hear other tracks than “One Little Victory” and “Animate”, they were certainly delivered with energy. You gotta love that weird little skipping dance Geddy Lee has developed over the last decade or so; that dude is having some fun!

The crowd got noticeably happier when the familiar strains of “Roll the Bones” commenced. Now, I like the chorus of this song, but the rap? That was bad then, and it’s bad now. I think the band may well have realized that and instead milked the comedic value, because they had it lip-synched by some celebrities including the Trailer Park Boys and some guy from the Game of Thrones TV adaptation. It made that part bearable, even though “Bravado” would have been my set list choice. But then I’m a melancholy fellow.

Then, we finally got to the meat of the show (for me). Cracking renditions of “Distant Early Warning” and “Subdivisions” closed the set. Too bad they bypassed the great Hold Your Fire album, but I’ve heard songs from that on previous tours, so I guess we can’t get greedy.

After a very peculiar and lengthy video of outtakes from various videos the band’s made (probably to accompany their DVD releases), the crowd was revved up right away by renditions of the undying “Tom Sawyer” and “Spirit of Radio”, sandwiching a great performance of “Red Barchetta”. There’s no doubt that these guys are still at the height of their playing powers; Lifeson’s playing is particularly noteworthy, expertly reeling off and elaborating on solos both in his classic Jimmy Page-inspired original style but also his abstract eighties style. There’s a ton of soul and wisdom in the way he bends them strings. And Peart? Well, for a chap his age to be playing that effortlessly and for so long, it’s a bit of a wonder.

But I digress. The band has certainly added some deep cuts for this tour, including “Jacob’s Ladder” (excellent), “Closer to the Heart” (I can do without that one at this point, though the klezmer version playing on the PA after the concert was great), “Cygnus X-1” (far out), and, yes, the mighty “Xanadu”, for which they donned their double necks once more. I’d have loved to have seen Lee back in his kimono. There’s nothing funner than hearing a man wail “Tonight I dine on honeydew, and drink the milk of paradise”!

As the roadies finally made the conversion (gradually, in red uniforms throughout the show) from a steampunk-inspired set design, to the comical washing machines-instead-of-amps look of years past, and finally to a seventies-style wall of amps, the majority of 2112‘s title suite was ripped through with abandon, as many gentlemen around me thrashed around, threatening to fall right off the balcony. (The libations were selling well at the beer stands.)

I object to the Objectivist nonsense that inspired the lyrics of that particular suite, but I do still enjoy the riffs very much.

After a final break during which we were entertained onscreen by Eugene Levy in his old SCTV Rockin’ Mel Slurp character, the band paid its usual homage to the days when they started out as North America’s version of Budgie, enthusiastically pounding out songs from Fly by Night and the debut album.

Interestingly, a show organized like this kind of emphasizes what you love and don’t love so much in a band’s career; while I like songs from each era of the band’s history (“Resist” and “The Wreckers” are great examples of later-career songs), my adrenaline certainly spiked with those first chords of a song from the Grace Under Pressure album. And then settled right down again when “Working Man” started up; to me that’s just nostalgia for sixty-year-olds. But to another dude, the show and those songs would have provided an entirely different experience, which is the glory of musical art and a long, fruitful career spent in it. Rush has made a lot of people very happy over the decades, proverbially “getting us through a lot of stuff.” Why, I still play “Time Stand Still” really loud once in a while to remind myself that as I enter middle age, I gotta keep fighting to live in true reality.

Moments like that (and this concert) are Rush’s gift to us, and I certainly hope this tour isn’t the last we see or hear of these three lovable goofs.

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