By Randall Roberts
Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
10:06 AM EST, November 21, 2012
The following ingredients were part of Monday night's gig at the Gibson Amphitheatre: 28 songs; two Neil Peart drum solos; a few dozen guitar solos and hundreds of intricately placed chords from Alex Lifeson; many midstage struts, gymnastic bass line and falsetto wails courtesy of bassist-keyboardist Geddy Lee.
Plus: one exiting warrior whose mind is not for rent, an order of priests (from the temples of Syrinx), a dose of celestial machinery and an unknown number of goddesses of mystery. Six thousand screaming fans, many of them missing “Monday Night Football.” Eight string players and, guiding them, one arranger-conductor, David Campbell (father of singer-songwriter Beck).
One Rock and Roll Hall of Fame berth hanging in the balance.
“One humanoid escapee/ One android on the run/ Seeking freedom beneath a lonely desert sun,” sang Lee in “The Body Electric,” sending out a cry for help in the chorus: “One zero zero one zero zero one SOS! One zero zero one zero zero one in distress!” Three Canadian men moving around on one stage for two sets and one encore, which lasted nearly three hours: Rush.
That's a lot of math to consider, but then this is a power trio that over 40 years has built musical equations and sonic geometry like particle engineers, in the process carving a singular, and polarizing, path through rock music. Born in a post-Led Zeppelin/Black Sabbath world that saw the rise of heavy metal and progressive rock, the band employed the seeds of those ideas and many others (jazz fusion, European classical, post-British Invasion guitar rock) to craft something absolutely unique.
Unique, of course, does not always mean brilliant.
This is the crux of an argument that's raged between critics and fans for nearly as long as the band has existed, recently reignited when Rush was nominated to be in the Rock Hall. Its audience is a devout and vocal one, and many have memorized the lyrics to all of its songs — no small feat when Lee spins out lines such as “a ticking box in the hand of the innocent/ The angry crowd moves toward him with bad intent,” as he did during “Carnies.”
Fans became emboldened after the nomination and will learn in December whether their idols made the cut. The legions remain giddy that vindication might be at hand after years of critical dismissal. A few months ago I argued against their induction.
So it may be surprising — and perhaps unfair — that a critic with an already revealed bias against an act would volunteer to review one of its concerts.
But besides being an intensely personal experience — tastes are stubborn things — music is a conversation, and the volume of mail that arrived after I declared in print and on video that Rush was unworthy of induction was overwhelming. Many shot simple-minded expletives my way. Others wrote page-long missives and blog posts tearing me down. But the central argument was simple: If I hadn't seen them live, my opinion on Rush was useless.
I hadn't seen the band live. Now I have. I am impressed. But I am not persuaded.
Rush knows how to put on a show. Decades of touring have provided it with expert knowledge, and as it has built its fan base, it has continually reimagined the concert experience. Monday's show, nearly a replica of most of the sets on this leg of the tour, was well paced, and the presentation was at times stunningly beautiful, a multimedia feast anchored in steampunk aesthetics and featuring an array of visual thematics to tie it all together. The most impressive were for “The Garden,” which was accompanied by a light show and video art teeming with illustrated flora and fauna.
And as instrumentalists, Rush is an unimpeachable unit. Songs such as “Grand Designs,” from 1985's “Power Windows,” were the rock equivalent of gymnastic floor routines, with so many instrumental cartwheels, flips, spins and leaps that keeping up with the grace and talent of individual moves becomes secondary to the maneuvering in total.
Others, like “Halo Effect,” had subtler shifts and harnessed the strings to create a bed of tension upon which rested Lee's forlorn cry. On this, one of the band's most direct love songs, Lee bemoaned the loss of “a goddess with wings on her heels.”
That song arrived in the middle of the band's second set, which featured many songs from “Clockwork Angels,” the recent studio album, and the namesake of the current tour. These new songs weren't very progressive by Rush's standards; musically, many could have landed on any of their albums of the past 20 years, even if they were more lyrically sophisticated. By the time it hit the “Clockwork” material, the band had already tossed meat into the crowd, courtesy of early sing-along classic rock equations such as “Subdivisions,” “Grand Designs” and “The Analog Kid.”
It fed the fans more classics after the “Angels” work, and it's here that the argument in favor of Rush's place in the so-called hallowed halls was most convincing. “YYZ,” in particular, burned; a four-minute burst from 1981's “Moving Pictures” featuring jagged-edged riffs that served as a template for the rhythmic ideas that would embolden Metallica a few years later.
After a sing-along version of one of its best-known songs, “The Spirit of Radio,” Rush exited, only to return a few moments later to perform “Tom Sawyer” and excerpts from its 1976 concept album “2112.” That conclusion starred the aforementioned priests of the temples of Syrinx, who occupy a futuristic story line that draws on Greek mythology. When Rush was finished, the 6,000 were ecstatic with the rush of music. It's a difficult spirit to argue with.
There are many reasons people dislike Rush, or any band. Some of these can be explained. I didn't like the band's structural impatience Monday, and its constant need to impress us with its chops. But I'm more of a groove man, with a passion for thoughtful, nuanced repetition that runs counter to Rush's reflexes. Rush makes rock music, too, that's stripped of nearly all of its blues influence, and rock without blues is like fat without the steak.
Lee's voice has always grated on me. At first I had similar trouble with Bob Dylan's delivery, but it contained a tone and attitude that clicked, and I've since come to love it. I've never had a desire to push through to the other side of Lee's voice, and the concert didn't advance the cause.
Other reasons are irrational, and deserve about as much energy as arguing over a favorite food or color. Like hundreds of other rock bands, Rush is good but not notable. Like that of many others, its music has created a tribe of followers through its admirable skill and effort. But if the group were completely erased from history, rock would sound and feel the same today.
We'll have to agree to disagree about Rush's place in rock history. I don't think the band is that important and can't ever see myself deciding to pop on a Rush album for pleasure. But as evidenced by the three Canadians' skillful set and honest connection with fans, it's perfectly clear why their audience is so devoted.
Who needs the Hall of Fame? These guys are showered with adulation every time they get onstage.