In this past week, two 3-piece rock acts have been touring the enormo-domes of the UK to great critical acclaim.
Thing is, I wonder whether Muse will still be touring such venues 40 years into their career as Rush are doing now. If they aren’t, it probably won’t even be their fault or under their control, given the gradual disintegration of the music business to a mere short-term popularity phone and text in contest.
Even though I don’t consider myself a Muse devotee (love stuff like Stockholm Syndrome etc etc) I sincerely hope that they continue to make music and push their own boundaries as they reach their 50’s, because as Rush ably demonstrated over 2 stunning concerts in London and Birmingham last week, such continuity can bring surprise and delight in equal measure.
You see, Rush could easily ‘roll out the hits’ 4 decades into their time together, as many Classic Rock artists are keen to do, maximizing revenue from their live concerts as royalties from album sales dwindle all the more. The Journey/Whitesnake/Thunder package that is also currently ploughing its way around Britain is a classic example of this desire to play it a little on the safe side and base their sets around their best-known material.
Not Geddy, Alex & Neil – at least not this time. On their 30th Anniversary tour a decade ago, Rush opened their show with a wonderful medley of their best loved riffs and signature songs from throughout their career, followed by a set that was arguably the closest they could come to a set list popular with the largest possible proportion of their fanbase. It was even easier to delve so extensively into their back catalogue on that tour as there was no ‘new’ product to promote as such.
The 2 UK tours that followed it (Snakes & Arrows and Time Machine) didn’t tread similar ground. The former concentrated on the new album that had been 5 years in the making since 2002’s Vapour Trails – an album that almost never happened following the tragic events in Neil Peart’s life in the late 90’s that led to the band’s hiatus and near break-up – whilst the Time Machine tour showed the band revisit the best-selling Moving Pictures album, playing it in its entirety to great delight of fans who’d never seen tracks like Camera Eye and Vital Signs played by the band.
So where could they go next? They could have played it safe, of course, and gone back to greatest hits packages and a sense of comfort and familiarity for both themselves and their audience. But Rush have never been ones to rest on their laurels. A concept album, Clockwork Angels was released last year and when the band announced the UK tour for this month, some borderline fans were somewhat hesitant to snap up tickets, perhaps because of the prices (which were not cheap) but also because of the notion that they’d probably have seen the show/setlist before.
In these days of internet message boards and specialist fan websites, band set lists are no longer a secret in the months leading up to a group visiting these shores for a tour. Rush, with its fanatical, and sometimes somewhat anally retentive following, are no exception. However I did my level best to avoid the lengthy debates over what was rumoured to be a rather controversial choice of songs.
Let’s remember at this point that, for the past several tours, Rush have toured alone without a support act, playing a 3-hour show – two 90-minute sets with a 30 minute break in between to allow the lads a well-earned breather. That’s a lot of songs required, then, but of course Rush have a lot of albums from which to cherry-pick material.
Having attended both the London O2 and Birmingham LG shows on the Clockwork Angels tour, I have to say it was a brave challenging setlist that the lads came up with. Part 1 was exclusively given over to the keyboard-heavy tunes from the 80’s and 90’s that divided opinion amongst die-hard Rush fans who were more comfortable with the prog workouts of 2112 and La Villa Strangiato than what they might have considered mere ‘pop songs’. But the truth is that this 1st half of material has stood the test of time magnificently.
It helps that Alex Lifeson’s guitar, somewhat squeezed out of the mix at times on those 80’s and 90’s albums has since returned to the fore, and as a consequence, it lends the songs of Power Windows, Hold Your Fire and Grace Under Pressure a new lustre in the ‘concert hall’.
Subdivisions has been a staple of the live Rush set since the 80’s and its impact over the years has finally seen it reach the lofty status of set opener – and rightly so. It’s quintessential Rush, with synths and guitars in perfect harmony and Neil Peart at his best and most inventive behind the kit. Following that with The Big Money & Force Ten made it as effective an opening as the last tour’s Spirit Of Radio/Time Stand Still/Presto was for me.
I shan’t go through the set song by song – after all there were slight variations between the London and Birmingham sets (my personal favourite ‘The Pass’ played in Birmingham where ‘Bravado’ had been aired instead in the capital being one example of 4 or 5 switches), but what was apparent from both audiences was the love and admiration for the daring nature of the song choices-not to mention the excellence of the execution.
As the croaky vocals of Whitesnake’s David Coverdale 48 hours on from Rush’s Birmingham performance showed, age can most certainly affect the consistency of a performer on the gruelling tours that bands have to undertake these days to earn the money that album sales most definitely do not it seems.
Coverdale, of course, surrounds himself with a plethora of younger and very talented musicians whose backing vocal prowess takes a lot of the pressure off him – and he is forever prone to holding the mic out to the audience for them to do the hard work, and so he muddles through, his stage presence and cheeky ‘posh rocker’ bonhomie more than compensating for any shortcomings in his range.
Geddy Lee can’t exactly hold his mic out to the Rush audience as an invite to join in – he’s a tad busy playing bass or synths, feet skipping across his Moog Taurus pedals beneath whilst all the time remaining note perfect vocally, even if his voice has long been called an ‘acquired taste’ by those who never really ‘got’ Rush. To watch Lee live is to constantly gaze open-mouthed and wonder how his brain allows him to metaphorically pat his head, rub his stomach, perform Riverdance routines and sing in a register ranging across 3 octaves. Beat that, Mariah Carey.
And Lee is the key to everything that makes Rush a viable and important concert attraction in the 21st century. Whilst it is obviously vital that Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart remain as gifted and talented as they are musically, it’s the fact that Lee can still sing it with pretty much the same conviction as he has over the last 40 years that seals the deal.
I remember some of the reviews that accompanied their 1988 UK tour in support of ‘Hold Your Fire’ in which one reporter titled his piece “Rush: Growing Old Gracefully”. That was 25 sodding years ago, and they’re STILL making great music as shown with the extraordinary Clockwork Angels from last year.
At this rate, they’ll make it to bloody 2112. But they assumed control a long time ago.