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Rush called its 2010-11 jaunt the Time Machine Tour, but that moniker easily could have been reserved for the current one. It would be fitting not only because of a stirring set list flecked with long-dormant period pieces but also due to the superb performance by three guys born in the early 1950s.
Simply put, Monday’s sold-out show at the Gibson Amphitheatre was another triumph for a band that never seems to deliver anything but.
As great as the playing was, this show was equally memorable for the content. Whereas the Time Machine Tour was highlighted by a complete run-through of Rush’s 1981 album Moving Pictures, this one offered a surprising slew of mid-’80s nuggets that served as a perfect preamble for a heaping dose of its terrific new Clockwork Angels album. Nine of its 12 tracks were deployed, drawing big cheers, not just polite applause.
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“Tonight we’ve got, oh, 600 songs to play,” singer-bassist Geddy Lee said early on. A bit of an exaggeration, sure, but there were nearly 30 of them over 2½ hours-plus, and the set list served both as an introduction to strong new material and a gift to the old-time fans. The Clockwork Angels Tour has the venerable band reaching deep into its midcareer archives for songs absent from the live stage since the Reagan and elder Bush years. All that was missing was a DeLorean that runs on 1.21 jigowatts.
But they aren’t being dusted off for simple nostalgia; many of the Cold War-era deep tracks are eerily resonant today. We got the cautionary reality check of “Grand Designs” (“So much poison in power/The principles get left out”); the be-wary-of-progress sentiment in “The Analog Kid” (“When I leave I don’t know what I’m leaving behind”); the cloud of a renewed nuclear threat in “Manhattan Project” (“Fools try to wish it away”); and, perfect for the Internet era, the identity-crisis plea of “The Body Electric” (“Images conflicting into data overload”). All were played with Rush’s typical precision and force.
Among the show’s many highlights was one of four songs Rush played from its underappreciated 1985 album Power Windows. “Territories,” missing from set lists since 1988, couldn’t be more timely, with its face-slap warning against the extremes of jingoism and xenophobia. Alex Lifeson’s muted guitar runs and riffs laid a foundation for Neil Peart’s percussion acrobatics as Lee sang, “Better the pride that resides/In a citizen of the world/Than the pride that divides/When a colorful rag is unfurled.” It was a showstopper.
After an intermission, the band returned for a long chunk of the new record — complete with an eight-piece string section and conductor. Because Clockwork Angels is a “concept album,” there could be a knee-jerk tendency to say Rush is reverting to its prog roots. Not so; the disc features some of the band’s hardest-rocking songs in decades, several of which hew more closely to Led Zeppelin than King Crimson. And all were equally meaty in the concert setting.
Almost as a yang to the show’s ’80s yin, several new songs recalled the hard bite of early Rush. “Headlong Flight” copped the feel of “Bastille Day,” and the suite-like title track channeled the band’s late-’70s records. “Seven Cities of Gold” flowed like a Watergate-era riff rocker, its string-bending finale recalling the last few notes of “2112.” All the while, the strings hummed along, though they rarely broke out amid the din.
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With all the ’80s and ’10s songs, the other decades of the band’s career received only the briefest of mentions; the encore featuring some “2112” — apropos in 2012 — was the night’s lone ’70s material. Regular concert staples such as “Limelight,” “Freewill” and “La Villa Strangiato” missed the cut.
Song choices aside, the trio again backed up its reputation as one of rock’s greatest live acts. Lifeson added heavy guitar to “Force Ten” and “Body Electric” — both from an era that really needed it — and grinned gleefully during his spotlight time on “Analog Kid,” replicating arguably his hardest-rocking post-’70s solo. A truly unsung guitar hero, he continues to plead his case in concert, sounding better than most of his contemporaries.
Meanwhile, the always-unsmiling Peart went about his drum business with the usual flawless skill. (So many in the crowd were air-drumming that you could distinguish the lefties from the righties.) But there were signs that the freshly minted sexagenarian is scaling back a bit: He gave three abbreviated solos rather than the usually requisite one looooong one, and his trademark stick tosses were less frequent and had less airtime. Even the new album seems to feature fewer of his signature kit-spanning fills.
These days, the other obvious difference in the hard-touring trio that has remained intact since 1975 is Lee’s vocals. Far from his shrieks of old, he has settled into a mostly midrange tone — occasionally stretching but content with moderation. As he faces 60 next year (as does Lifeson), the vocal strain is showing. “I find [touring] more stressful than usual,” he told Grammy.com in September. “I think the physical part of it takes its toll on me, and the other guys I know for sure. It’s a difficult thing for me to do right now.”
That said, Lee and his bandmates definitely brought it Monday night. If indeed there is an endgame in Rush’s sights, go see them while you can. (The band plays the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego on Wednesday.) But here’s hoping that isn’t the case.
The Big Money
The Body Electric
The Analog Kid
Where’s My Thing?
Seven Cities of Gold
Red Sector A
The Spirit of Radio
2112: Overture/The Temples of Syrinx/Grand Finale
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