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Rush @ Gibson Ampitheater 8/11/10

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Photo by Ray Massie via flickr.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure Rush, whose current lineup solidified in 1973 with the addition of drummer Neil Peart, are now # 2 in the running for longest-lasting famous rock band that never broke up or changed their lineup. That’s a four year gap from ZZ Top (formed Texas, 1969), who are also showing no signs of going anywhere - in fact they played the Pacific Amphitheater just a few days after this show. But they’d better keep eating right and exercising if they don’t want to be overtaken.

Because Rush was looking awfully healthy last week at the Gibson. To a man, they look fit, play and sing almost exactly the same as they did thirty years ago (Geddy Lee’s vocals may be topping off about an octave below their seventies heights, but that’s not such a terrible sacrifice), and they defied fans’ expectations for an evening billed as the “Time Machine Tour” by occasionally setting the machine forward and playing some surprisingly epic new songs. And judging by the unchained ecstasy witnessed in the seats, and the looks of pained anxiety on the faces of folks begging for spare tickets outside, their fan support remains unflagging, in both size and intensity. Count them in for the long haul.

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Their sound is an acquired taste, one acquired primarily by males, as evidenced by the line for the Men’s Room during the mid-set break, the length of a city block just three minutes after they’d stopped playing. It’s the reason why they got the cameo in the movie I Love You, Man, whose stars returned for one of three comedy sketches shown on the big screen (yes, in Canada, even progressive rock is funny). It’s music made for people who like that kind of music, and for some reason, most of them are fellas. Big chunks of their catalog are defiantly anti-pop, pretty much all the early stuff. The preferred dance to a Rush song is air-guitarring, or air-drumming, depending on which instrument you play, as precisely as possible in 15/8 time, with a look of studied concentration, head bobbing on the big syncopated accents. There’s not much about them that’s sexy, except for one thing: confidence. This band brings a confidence level that epitomizes the phrase “making it look easy,” swinging through compositional hurdles that would drop lesser players to the ground in half a second, and there’s not even a question that they might fuck up, ever. Maybe some people find that sexy, or at least, worthy of a man-crush.

But despite their oft-stated disdain for the mainstream, the focal point of this particular tour is a performance of their most popular album, 1980’s Moving Pictures. This was the record that marked a change in the band’s methods; while still enamored of funny time signatures and elaborate song structures, they made a play for accessibility and delivered a full side of inarguable FM radio classics without losing their personality. It was only years after they’d become hugely popular doing weirdo-rock that they embraced pop music full-stop, more of a risky move than a sellout, given their core fans’ disdain for “commercial radio shit”. But they still include their brief entry into America’s Top Forty, “Time Stand Still”, in their set list, and no one sits down. (Actually, they don’t sit down for anything, all night.) And the band tears into it, giving it a tougher and leaner reading than the OMD-evoking studio version.

Much of the first set material was even newer than that, with their recent albums Snakes And Arrows, Counterparts and Vapor Trails all represented. Much of it tended toward the Zeppelin-inspired heaviness of their early albums, particularly the still-unreleased “Caravan”, which I can see fifteen year olds practicing their drums to as soon as it comes out. (That’s a standard we drummers use to judge Rush songs, by the way: how likely would I be to spend a month learning how to play this at home?) They seem to be settling into a good groove, offerring a modern take on something deeply rooted.

But once they returned from the break and busted out the complete Moving Pictures, the audience response galvanized into something approaching mass hysteria. There’s just something about those songs, particularly the first five, they demand to be played in sequence. And here they were, doing it, nailing it, sounding every bit as good as you’d ever imagined it could sound. It gave the feeling of being back in the bedroom in 1981, poring over the cover, imagining what a red Barchetta might look like. Those lucky enough to get in should be grateful this show came off at the Gibson instead of the Forum, where it was originally scheduled, as the sound inside the room was just about flawless, and those dense, intricate arrangements were even more clearly defined than they’d been on vinyl.

This they followed with a few more new songs, and the inevitable Neil Peart drum solo (also funny) and acoustic Alex Lifeson feature, before swan-diving into their deepest dude catalog: the first fifteen minutes of space epic 2112. It’s been a while since a complete stranger has bro-hugged me and sang lyrics in my face, but it happenned on this night. Who can say what “we are the priests of the temples of Syrinx” means to such a person, but it evidently means a lot. At the opening notes of “La Villa Strangiato” as the first encore, the same guy punched my arm hard enough that it hurt the next day, then sang every lyric of “Working Man” in my ear.

What could I really do but punch him back and sing along? Sometimes, it’s just that kinda night, out with the dudes at a Rush concert. What's a little arm-punching between brothers?