Saturday, July 06, 2013

Rush to Judgment? Canadian Trio Still Rocks Soundly, but Doesn't Thrill (Me) Throughout -- Milwaukee Concert Review

Concert Review

Summerfest, Milwaukee
July 4, 2013

Compared to the general population, the music press over the years and some avid music-fan friends who have long been left cold by the Canadian power trio, I think I count as a pretty heavy-duty Rush fan.

I have enjoyed their music since getting the Permanent Waves album as an 11-year-old in 1980; I own most of their albums--mostly acquired immediately upon release--including such lesser lights as 1993's Counterparts; and I've seen them live 8 times since 1984.

(Funny thing is I remember going to see them at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles in 1992 and thinking that I was reliving my youth and that they seemed a bit long in the tooth; I was all of 23 and Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart all had yet to hit 40.)

But compared to serious Rush fans, I'm likely something more of a lightweight.

To wit: Thursday night at the Marcus Amphitheater of Milwaukee's Summerfest, during a break following the band's initial 10 song set--which opened with a few hits (at least in Rush world) but primarily featured album cuts not among their best-known songs--I asked the guy next to me how he liked the show so far. During the set, he hadn't noticeably sung along, played air guitar or drums or likely even smiled. (See the setlist on

He said he liked it, but went on to share how he hadn't been as into their lyrical themes since they shifted from science fiction to more social and emotional matters since the death of Peart's wife and daughter in the late '90s. In anticipation of Rush returning to the stage to play the bulk of 2012's Clockwork Angels accompanied by a string section, the guy asked if I'd read the book--a novelization based on the album was penned by Kevin J. Anderson, to which I was oblivious--and proceeded to tell me about it.

And I was just looking for validation for feeling a bit vexed that "Limelight"--played in the opening set at most Rush shows this tour--was eschewed in favor of relative obscurity "The Body Electric."

Not being a Rush beginner, nor someone unaware of their tendencies on recent tours, I know that they like to start shows with a mix of hits and album cuts that they've decided to resurface.

My problem with this in Milwaukee is that in skipping "Limelight," they didn't give me enough classic ear candy--until later in the show--and they also left off one of my favorite album cuts, "The Pass," which they've consistently played on this tour.

And while I don't mean to piss off Rush fans who love Clockwork Angels--and therefore, presumably, the 9 songs they played with strings attached--I just don't think it's all that great. It has stellar moments, but in full becomes laborious.

So a bit ironically, during this section of the show--and even the earlier part sans "Subdivisions," "The Big Money" and "Force Ten"--I found myself perceiving Rush a bit like my friends who aren't fans. In other words, I appreciated their technical prowess on their instruments and found them sonically stellar, but the songs were just too esoteric for me to be playing air guitar and drums. As I often say about opera, I appreciated what I was watching & hearing much more than I was feeling it.

Fortunately, near the end of their 3-hour show, Rush played stellar versions of the classics of my youth--"The Spirit of Radio," "YYZ," "Tom Sawyer" and "2112/Temples of Syrinx"--that allowed me to rock out quite geddily (pun intended).

While I realize these Rush staples shouldn't be all that a hardcore fan wants to hear, I can't deny that I much preferred the band's 2010 gig at the same venue, which included a full playing of 1981's great Moving Pictures album (and which I reviewed here).

Now, to anyone who might say that I knew what I was getting going in, I agree to a certain extent. Much of what has made Rush cool over the years (to those of us who think they are) is their commitment to making music the way they want, without deference to being decreed as hip, or--until their much delayed induction into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame this year--garnering critical adoration or even respect.

While I am enough of a fan not to only like songs they recorded before 1984--"Far Cry" from 2007's Snakes & Arrows was one of the best played on Thursday--the truth is I would have been a good bit happier to have heard "Red Barchetta," "Free Will" or the forever-neglected "Fly By Night" in lieu of a few of the songs played on Thursday.

If you were there and loved it, I'm glad you did. But to be fair to the shows I have loved--including by Rush--I can't say that this one consistently reached that level. The band's performance of what they played was superlative, but my enjoyment of it was a bit lesser.

Which isn't to say that I preferred Animation, the Rush tribute band who played at a nearby Summerfest stage prior to the show. Especially with the dazzling musicianship of Mssrs. Lee, Lifeson and Peart readily on display, I'll always appreciate the chance to see them.

But Animation at least filled in some of the songs I wanted to hear on this 4th of July.

Here's a clip of show-opener "Subdivisions" posted on YouTube by chinarider69: 

And for friends who haven't appreciated the greatness of Rush over the years, here's a "Rush for Beginners" playlist I put together on Spotify:

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