54,400 Notes, 0.04% Error Rate: Rush at Gibson Amphitheater 6/22/11
Here we are again. Ten months after their last appearance at this very building, the Canadian power trio/ comedy troupe Rush returned for an faithful re-run of a show that many of those in attendance have already seen. The same lead-in skits, same songs, in the same sequence, with the same number of snare drum hits. Like many of their progressive brethren, Rush are nothing if not reliable. Even the breaks between sets have been timed to the minute - you can watch the timer on the big screen and know how long you have to hit the restroom.
But to their ferociously loyal fan base, this attention to detail is what sets Rush apart. It is what’s gotten them this far. That guy in the ninth row who’s frantically air-drumming along with startling accuracy would be thrown for a loop if Neil Peart decided to throw one more or less snare hit into the monstrously complex sequence of hits required to perform these songs. The large number of guitarists in the audience want to hear Alex Lifeson nail THAT solo in “YYZ”, not just play something random. In the context of this music, improvisation would sound like a mistake.
The band does re-arrange two of the oldest tunes in the program, giving “La Villa Strangiato” a jaunty polka intro (inspired by their alter-ego Rash, seen in the video clips that open both sets) and going cod reggae for the first two verses of “Working Man,” but these are not spontaneous decisions. We don't know how many meetings of the minds were required to decide whether there should be one funny intro or two, and if it should be a smooth jazz intro or a salsa intro or country/ western or what before the final decision to go ahead with polka - cod reggae, but we trust that a lot of thought went into it.
But predictability aside, it can’t be denied that they pulled together a great program and played the hell out of it. Geddy Lee took a few songs to find his voice, but kicked in around the time of “Presto.” Having a huge repertoire to choose from, besides the announced devotion of forty-five minutes to the entire Moving Pictures album, the old songs they chose were the ones that fit well with their most current material, and most dated from 1985 or later. The tracks “BU2B” and “Caravan”, from what they described as a “soon to be completed album”, show the band back in power-trio mode, staying close in spirit to the Zeppelin-meets-Genesis complicated riff rock that started their career.
“Stick It Out” and the instrumental “Leave That Thing Alone” from the grunge-era Counterparts album were especially strong, keeping the band’s ability to craft epic drama while finding a post-modern way to be heavy. The three tracks they played from 2007’s Snakes And Arrows, including the set-closing “Far Cry”, were even better. The old-fashioned heshers waiting for the time machine to go back earlier than 1980 would have to hang in there for over two hours to get their wish, but if they turned a deaf ear to the considerable pleasures of these cherry-picked highlights of the band’s more recent past, it’s their loss.
I was a bit shocked to notice what may have been three actual mistakes in the set - naysayers can check the bootleg versions of “Camera Eye”, “Limelight” and “Vital Signs” if they wish to prove that scandalous accusation false - but their hit rate still remains remarkable considering HOW MANY notes there are in a three-hour Rush concert. I count seventeen notes in the first three seconds of “Free Will” alone, so that crunches out to three hundred and forty notes a minute. Figure they were actually playing for a hundred and sixty minutes out of three hours on stage, that’s 54,400 notes. If they got maybe twenty of them wrong, that’s still a 0.04% error rate - bands that lip-synch get worse scores than that!
But rock and roll, even the progressive kind, isn’t about accuracy, it’s about delivery, and Rush is still very much in the delivery business. Even if the content remained identical, emotionally and energetically, this felt like the better of the two shows I saw. They’re playing at an incredibly high capacity for a band with a forty-year history - there’s no comparison to the shows that bands like the Who and the Stones were putting on ten years ago when they were these guys’ age. Relatively clean, modest living and regular exercise have kept their instrumental facility intact, and they look like they’re still having a great time as they plow through the set one more time for us. And the pleasure of watching dudes have fun doing something really hard is a big part of what Rush is all about.