Pre-show, Rush fans were easy to spot in Columbus' Arena District as, frankly, they were probably the only ones there. They fit the Rush fan stereotype well (hell, so do I) and one could make a fascinating study of the band's tour shirts through history just by photographing their dedicated followers, each seemingly intent on besting the other with a shirt of finer vintage. When choosing my own at the merch stand I was disappointed in the blah-ness of design and, while Rush shirts are never exactly exciting, I have to admit I find the whole steampunk aesthetic just so... nerdy. I settled on a red shirt I'll never wear that has a design I cannot tie to the record but which was one of the only ones not to feature some kind of steam-powered dirigible. Disposable income, indeed.
I've been to Nationwide Arena before and this return trip did nothing to change my opinion for better or worse. It sounds about as one would expect for a hockey venue constructed of steel and stone and feels about as lush. It appeared as if nearly every available seat was occupied when the band hit the stage, fairly close to the published 7:30 start.
The live music was preceded by what now seems mandatory for arena acts: an elaborate video intro. I've seen Rush's recent shows on DVD and got about what I expected here. It was a cartoonishly steampunk-infused combination of the band, the Wizard of Oz and the Three Stooges. The audience ate it up but I have to admit it felt a little silly and a lot overlong. Once the band started, though, it was easily forgotten. I suppose a Rush fan should probably have a more obscure track as a favorite but "Subdivisions" is mine among their songs and I was thrilled when it opened the show. With a Power Windows track, "The Big Money," hitting next it quickly became apparent that this would not be a night of traditional "hits." Geddy welcomed everyone warmly and spoke of a plan to play "a gazillion songs" and, while they came damn close to thirty, no one could leave dissatisfied with the three hours of music that followed.
The first set was rock-solid, marred, if at all, by some distortion from the low end drowning out vocals which, as evidenced on the Time Machine recordings, aren't as strong as they used to be. Sound issues seemed promptly resolved and, for the venue's acoustics, Rush sounded great. Rush's synthesizer era seems to be receiving some retroactive appreciation in recent years and to get so much exposure to their mid-80s material live was a treat for me, as I didn't know going in whether to expect a career-spanning retrospective or a lopsided focus on recent works.
The band was lively, with Geddy easily the most mobile onstage. They had a large space to work in and, while some was occupied by their usual oddball set dressing, it almost felt too large for this three-piece. Neil Peart was center-stage and just so intense, so busy. Alex kept low-key and largely stationary, stepping out only to solo or occasionally meet Geddy midstage for some jamming. And I use that term loosely. As with many arena acts, it seems, nearly every selection is accompanied by video productions that, while providing more to look at, also seem to keep the proceedings from becoming too loose or improvisational. That said, they delivered forcefully within the confines of the evening's structure and while it never felt as if anyone could really stretch, songwise, nothing seemed stale nor sterile, either.
Highlights in the first set were Geddy's bass tone on "Force Ten," in particular, a track that fit in nicely with its peers and was the night's sole inclusion from Hold Your Fire. "Territories" came across as both tribal and fierce and my high school favorite, Roll the Bones, got a little time in the spotlight with a killer "Bravado" featuring a couple nice Lifeson solos and then a segueway into the instrumental "Where's My Thing?" which led into the first Neil Peart drum solo of the evening.
An eight-piece string ensemble joined the band following a brief intermission and filled the stage for a heavy selection of nine Clockwork Angels tracks. While I love this record, I do have to say it got a bit weary played roughly in order. The bass bubbled to life nicely on "Caravan," starting things off very well and "Clockwork Angels," not a favorite of mine of record, had a heft and an edge live that gave it new life for me. On the other hand, "The Anarchist" and "Carnies," both selections I enjoyed on the album, simply did not have enough character live to remain compelling (though "Carnies" did come complete with some dazzling onstage pyrotechnics). While "The Wreckers," "Headlong Flight" and "Seven Cities of Gold" all delivered heartily as I expected the would in a concert setting, "Halo Effect" fell flat and "The Garden" closed the album's selections as cloying, cluttered and clunky.
It was almost shocking, then, to leap right back to Power Windows for "Manhattan Project" and this vies closely for my favorite moment of the evening. A track I always felt was a bit tepid on record, it crescendoed with a growing intensity comparable to nuclear proliferation and what had previously felt too "message-y" actually came across as jarringly powerful. A nice, effects-laden second drum solo followed and, leave it to Rush, another surprise, Grace Under Pressure's "Red Sector A," seared through the arena, its lyrical content amplified with the most emotional music the trio provided all night, easily winning a spot as my hands-down highlight of the entire concert.
A pair of audience-favorite "oldies," "YYZ" and "The Spirit of Radio" saw the band exiting the stage as everyone in attendance was on their feet. It was no time before they returned and offered their loosest-but-tight moments of the evening, relaxed yet raging renditions of "Tom Sawyer" and a strong suite from 2112.
Another weird video closed the proceedings and left many expecting a second encore. When the lights came up, though, three hours after it all began, an evening with Rush felt like a truly progressive - and immensely satisfying - experience. Now that I know what I've been missing, I'll go again. I'll be the one in the red t-shirt from 2012.
- Subdivisions (Signals, 1982)
- The Big Money (Power Windows, 1985)
- Force Ten (Hold Your Fire, 1987)
- Grand Designs (Power Windows, 1985)
- The Body Electric (Grace Under Pressure, 1984)
- Territories (Power Windows, 1985)
- The Analog Kid (Signals, 1982)
- Bravado (Roll the Bones, 1991)
- Where's My Thing?/Drum Solo 1 (Roll the Bones, 1991)
- Far Cry (Snakes & Arrows, 2007) Intermission
- Caravan (Clockwork Angels, 2012)
- Clockwork Angels (Clockwork Angels, 2012)
- The Anarchist (Clockwork Angels, 2012)
- Carnies (Clockwork Angels, 2012)
- The Wreckers (Clockwork Angels, 2012)
- Headlong Flight (Clockwork Angels, 2012)
- Halo Effect (Clockwork Angels, 2012)
- Seven Cities of Gold (Clockwork Angels, 2012)
- The Garden (Clockwork Angels, 2012)
- Manhattan Project (Power Windows, 1985)
- Drum Solo 2
- Red Sector A (Grace Under Pressure, 1984)
- YYZ (Moving Pictures, 1981)
- The Spirit of Radio (Permanent Waves, 1980) Encore
- Tom Sawyer (Moving Pictures, 1981)
- I. Overture (2112, 1976)
- II. The Temples of Syrinx (2112, 1976)
- VII. Grand Finale (2112, 1976)