The opening music for Rush’s Thursday night gig at Starlight -- early ‘70s album tracks by Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson -- set the profoundly nostalgic tone which seems to be the theme of its “Time Machine Tour.”
Yet, despite the group’s cultural (or just cult) cachet, Rush's music has never really had much in common with those Euro-prog giants. Rush’s ambitions are distinctly North American and more about solo-sport athleticism. And whatever its aspirations, they are nearly always subsumed by simple compositional frameworks that provide the maximum spotlight time to each band member -- singer-bassist-keyboardist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, drummer Neil Peart — without really departing from the 3-minute pop song, even when they double or triple that length.
For a group whose self-consciously nerdy-fanboy status is based primarily on its alleged intelligence and complexity, Rush’s actual material is distinctly middlebrow stuff, a mix of smarter-than-average arena rock with a streamlined, vaguely New Wave aesthetic.
As on other stops of their current tour, the group played two sets (each about 70 minutes and separated by a 15-minute intermission), the second of which began with the entirety of their now-30-years-old "Moving Pictures."
Though the career-spanning setlist was surely pure fantasy for die-hards, the length and breadth of the show did the group no favors in the eyes and ears of this unconverted writer. While their skills are basically undiminished, almost two and a half hours of solid playing took an obvious toll on Lee’s voice, and Peart’s youthful tendency to rush has been replaced by an occasional drag; as ever, his fills end when they end, and the downbeat is wherever he says it is.
Speaking of those fills, each was precisely as recorded over the course of the last three and a half decades, and a troubling automatism underlay both sets. Rush is the only band I've ever seen whose use of pre-recorded elements (the odd keyboard part or backing vocal) is a problem, not because those recordings stick out as glaringly artificial but because they actually seem no less like production-line premeditation than the supposedly "live" content.
About half an hour into the first set, I realized I was sitting next to Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, who air-drummed literally every one of Peart’s fills, each performed to sterile perfection and utterly lacking in the spontaneity that makes live music a worthwhile proposition.
The virtual-lip-synch element of the whole thing was less in evidence during the "Moving Pictures" set, which perhaps ironically featured the group’s most spirited playing: “The Camera Eye” in particular sounded lean and hungry.
That a 30-year old track far outstripped its recent contemporaries, however, presents the problems both of a career-spanning retrospective show by a band whose stylistic gradations are miniscule at best and of the live-or-Memorex approach to studio re-creation.
Left to fend for themselves exactly as recorded, the roughly two-dozen songs tended toward an indistinct haze, and the new material didn’t fare well in such a setting. It was an especially ill-advised choice to set back-to-back “Faithless” and “Brought Up to Believe (BU2B),” both written within the last three years, both with similar lyrical themes and both with almost identical choruses.
At best, the band’s mechanical precision evoked the postmodern sterility that is one of Peart’s lyrical fixations (“Subdivisions,” the aforementioned “The Camera Eye”); at worst, the triviality of older material highlighted the lack of progress in more recent stuff: "Freewill” and “2112 Overture/Temples of Syrinx” are as preposterous as ever.
That the band is still playing both is either the product of continued dedication to the material, outright cynicism, fan loyalty, or all three. And which of those factors holds most sway is perhaps unimportant in a live show that, quite frankly, might have been quite as well performed by a CD player plugged into the theater’s P.A.
Everyone miming Peart’s fills, stroke for stroke, and singing along with Geddy Lee surely owns the records. Why, then, their evident delight in paying $50 essentially to witness the records being played back while the creators nod approvingly?
| Michael Judge, Special to The Star
Set 1: The Spirit Of Radio; Time Stand Still; Presto; Stick It Out; Leave That Thing Alone; Workin' Them Angels; Faithless; BU2B; Freewill; Marathon; Subdivisions.
Set 2: Tom Sawyer; Red Barchetta; YYZ; Limelight; The Camera Eye; Witch Hunt; Vital Signs; Caravan; Love 4 Sale; Closer To The Heart; 2112 Overture / Temples Of Syrinx; Far Cry
Encore: La Villa Strangiato; Working Man