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You may have heard of Rush before. Studies have (probably) shown that your dad is likely to have least one album of theirs on CD or vinyl; and it will be your dad, as their fanbase seems to be entirely devoid of females. And if you haven’t done so already, you should really check that CD out. Arguably their most famous album, 2112, includes a 30 minute progressive hard-rock space-opera in which the unnamed protagonist fights against the tyrannical forces of an authoritarian, interplanetary Empire. Kind of like Star Wars, but more confusing by several magnitudes. Oh, and the whole thing is littered with references to Ayn Rand’s preposterously large (and equally confusing) book ‘Atlas Shrugged’. So if you’re trying to describe Rush in a single word, your only choice would be ‘pretentious’.
Not that this is a bad thing. But this is proper, old-school pretentious; Rush were pretentious before being pretentious was cool. Shunned by mainstream critics for the majority of their decades spanning existence, they have instead had to build a fanbase on the basis of their excellent live show, which has been round the world as many times as the International Space Station in the last twenty or so years, and their almost unparalleled musicianship.
So, to recap, they are ancient prog-rockers with extremely high-pitched voices who play extremely long songs with titles like La Villa Strangiato – An Exercise in Self Indulgence and dabble in obscure political philosophies. So why should you care about them? Because a) they’ve influenced pretty much every artist in some way since the 1970s, b) they do a bloody great live show and c) they’re just kind of awesome.
They opened with a fantastic rendition of one of their most well-known songs, Spirit of the Radio, and didn’t let the momentum drop from there. They bounced between styles and eras seamlessly, segueing effortlessly from the hard rock of Spirit of the Radio into the almost cheesy synth-pop of Time Stand Still and back to extended versions of funky instrumentals. ‘I have to apologise for our little indulgences’, said frontman Geddy Lee half after playing a gloriously long version of Leave That Thing Alone, but the crowd lapped every second of it up. It’s such a treat to watch them play; all three of them are true masters of their instruments and Geddy Lee somehow manages to play the keyboards with his feet whilst playing some of the funkiest, most complex bass lines in all of rock music. Some more excellent performances came in the form of Subdivisions and Freewill, the latter of which really lived up to expectations live as my favourite song in all of human history.
YYZ was another highlight after the brief interval – you know you’ve done something right when a crowd of 30,00 people sings along to every note of a five minute instrumental. Neil Peart, their truly god-like drummer, then took center stage for one of his world-renowned 360 degree drum solos (his kit rotates whilst he’s playing!). I timed the thing at nine minutes 46 seconds. He is verging on his sixties and he can still do this is in the middle of a demanding three hour set. There aren’t really any words you can use to describe things like that, to be quite honest. Two movements from the aforementioned 2112 suite and an encore of crowd-favourite Working Man brought an excellent set to a thrilling conclusion.
Overall then, they were nigh on perfect. Perfect musicianship, perfect set list, perfect all round performance. But that wasn’t the most impressive part; if any aspect of this hadn’t been perfect then the crowd would have been disappointing. They’re amongst the best musicians in the world on their respective instruments, and they’ve been doing this stuff for almost double the amount of time most of us have been alive anyway, so nothing but the best would have sufficed.
But what was truly impressive was that they managed to set this fantastic music in the context of a frequently hilarious, occasionally awe-inspiring (and sometimes just plain confusing) live show that incorporated bits of theatre and film alongside the music. “I just can’t stop thinking big” is a lyric from their latest single, and it really is obvious that that’s true. Every bit of their equipment – from the amps to the drum kits to the on-stage sausage maker – was impeccably styled to match the steampunk-esque concept of their upcoming album. Three films played throughout the set that showed us the ‘True History of Rush’. They were originally a folk band, apparently, until their manager invented a time-machine and turned them in prog-rock superheroes. It’s refreshing to see that a band as respected and as pretentious as Rush have an excellent and slightly odd sense of humour. They also have a penchant for awful puns, which is something I can relate to. But undoubtedly the best bit was the whopping great transformer that unfurled itself from the roof and cast an almighty shadow over half the crowd, before exploding in a flurry of rave lights and fireworks and robot dance moves.
They’re getting quite old now but they certainly don’t look like slowing down, so when their tour inevitably finds itself back in England, I really recommend catching them. After all, there was a reason that most of the crowd left the arena saying “that was the best gig I’ve ever seen”.