Rush at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre
Tinley Park, Illinois, September 8, 2007
I told a coworker last week, a twenty-something woman who works in my department, that I was taking Monday off to recuperate from the weekend.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I’m going to go see Rush!” I said, with a certain amount of anticipation and pride.
“Who’s that?” she wondered, with absolute seriousness.
This shocked me more than my wife’s friend who, upon learning my same plans asked the question: “They’re still alive?”
At least she acknowledged some understanding of the band.
After three decades, I’d never been to a Rush concert. I was a fan and, strangely enough, the band had even played a significant role as the soundtrack during one of my first sexual explorations. It’s inappropriate, I know, but I hadn’t been exposed to Roxy Music’s Avalon at the time, so give me a break.
I started to distance myself from the band around the time I became pretentious about music and started to care about things like Brian Eno-era Roxy Music and how Rush’s added synthesizer works to their mid-80s output seemingly neutered the band from any hint of their former power-trio bravado. The band would later return to their more guitar-oriented formula, but by then I was even further away from the playlist of the classic rock station.
After a bit of middle age nostalgia and a strong album of new material (review), I considered the exorbitant ticket prices (the seats, about thirty rows back from center stage, had a face value of $90) of Rush’s Snakes & Arrows tour to finally check out a band that had played a vital part in my own upbringing.
The experience provided me with the realization that, perhaps, the bands that I held in high regard during junior high weren’t that embarrassing; that those three Canadians could still manage to fill the 28,000 capacity First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Chicago for a very good reason:
They can fucking play.
I understand how divisive it is being a Rush fan; you either love them or you don’t, and there is very little room for middle ground. They also seem to be more of a “guy band” and the predominately male audience that I encountered probably outnumbered the ladies about three-to-one. That said, the attractive and professional looking woman in her early thirties that had a seat next to me knew the words to every song in the band’s three hour set including the new material. And the two middle age ladies standing behind me started screaming “Wooo Hooo!” when the band started playing “Natural Science,” certainly not one of Rush’s most popular songs, in the middle of their second set.
In other words: the chicks that were in attendance were hardcore fans and would surpass me in their knowledge and overall admiration of the band.
Chicago is a special place for Rush (they recorded their 1998 live album Different Stages at this same venue), but the band deviated little from their already established 28-song setlist that is broken up between two sets. The first set, introduced with a comedic dream sequence video starring Alex, Geddy and Neil shown over three HD screens hanging over center stage, contained 11 songs, randomly lifted from the band’s 18 album deep catalog.
While the band admirably focused on material from Snakes & Arrows, the crowd didn’t seem to mind; the audience was extremely generous toward these songs and the band executed them with fire and enthusiasm.
The band’s Permanent Waves album is the second highest source of material for this tour. That album signaled the band’s second major shift in sound while producing some of their most recognizable songs (“The Spirit of the Radio,” “Freewill”).
Those tracks, along with Moving Pictures‘ “Limelight” and “Tom Sawyer,” Signals‘ “Subdivisions” and 2112‘s “Passage To Bangkok” proved to be the night’s most recognizable songs. Everything else, it seemed, was chosen to provide the band’s loyal followers with a chance at catching something not regularly performed.
Snakes & Arrows‘ three instrumental tracks, along with the wordless “YYZ” from Moving Pictures made an appearance, hinting that the band felt the need to address their own increased age and its effect on their dexterity. While visibly older, none of the band sounded a bit winded as they showed off their impeccable chops that they’ve perfected over three decades of performances.
To complement the band’s notoriously famous un-photogenic image, the show is supplemented with obligatory lasers and other lighting highjinks along with smoke machines, flashpots, and some woefully lame computer-generated imagery. When the video director wasn’t dazzling the crowd with circa-1982 visuals, they were at least acknowledging the era with a Bob & Doug McKenzie song introduction and band-created vignettes. The best one came from the South Park’s “Lil’ Rush” cartoon where Cartman gets Tom Sawyer confused with Huckleberry Finn before being corrected by Kyle.
The band members also managed to provide the crowd with a few visuals themselves.
Geddy Lee, dressed in black t-shirt, black jeans, and Chuck Taylors, worked the frets of the various Fender basses while returning to his familiar black and white Rickenbacker bass for one song, “The Spirit of the Radio.” His rig was built into rotisserie chicken ovens, labeled as a “Henhouse” brand, complete with rotating chickens cooking inside of their glass doors. The amps (which appear to be fully functional, as each one was individually mic’d towards the bottom) stood about six feet high and were maintained by roadies who would occasionally don a chef’s hat and come out on stage to brush the chicken with butter and seasonings.
Alex Lifeson looked smart in blue jeans and a button-down shirt while sporting what appeared to be wrestling shoes. A barrage of Barbie dolls surrounded his stage monitors, with arms raised, mocking him as the only female fans that the guitarist of Rush has probably seen during his tenure. On top of his guitar stacks were dozens of toy dinosaurs, perhaps addressing the fact that Rush has, indeed, reached a level of Triceratopian proportions from not only their style of music, but their median ages as well. As Geddy himself explained when they needed to take a break after the first set: “Because we’re old.”
And then there’s Neil Peart, the man responsible for some of the band’s most head-scratching lyrical moments and for the, literally, thousands of air-drumming worshippers in attendance who tried to mimic each impossibly complex fill and/or tempo change.
Playing behind a beautiful crimson red DW kit embossed with the Snakes & Arrows logo, his riser rotated during the drum solo after “Malignant Narcissism” to reveal an electronic kit behind his acoustic. After a curious blend of acoustic and electronic drum soloing, a pre-recorded segment of big band music played, allowing Peart to play along to the styles of his idol Buddy Rich, while black and white video footage of some of those swing-era drum heroes were projected on the screen. After one difficult fill at the end of “Summertime Blues”, the drummer slumped over as if his heart had stopped before cracking a rare smile at his band mates who were awaiting the final cymbal crash.
There was obvious respect and admiration toward each other throughout the show. Lifeson uttered a few words of “nicely done” into Geddy’s ear after some tight, low-end riffing while Lee himself sat down off stage to watch Peart’s entire drum solo.
It was a display of camaraderie that rivaled that of those in attendance, many of whom brought their own children in the hopes that their idol worship would somehow be passed along to a new generation.
At the same time, that kind of “family outing” made it fairly uncomfortable for someone like me who planned on smoking a perfectly rolled joint during “Witch Hunt” to get “prepared” for Peart’s upcoming drum solo, only to potentially become the recipient of the angry glares from parents shielding their children from the second-hand smoke.
In an act of unprecedented uncoolness, I forgot the lighter in the car and nobody, I mean nobody around me seemed to be holding a source of fire. I guarantee you that wasn’t the case whenever Rush first toured in support of Permanent Waves; those seats would have been wafting in the stench of weed. It didn’t really matter to the music and I’m sure my forgetfulness raised my standing among the middle agers (and I’m one of them) in attendance.
Speaking of: I’m old enough now that the security guard didn’t even frisk me coming into the amphitheatre; I could have brought a three-foot bong in their and he wouldn’t have even noticed!
We may be old, but goddamn it, we were in impressively large numbers that evening, revisiting our past and admiring the spunk of a power trio who still seemed focused on carrying on, regardless of perception or lack of critical recognition.
I understand how Rush’s impact may be overlooked among the younger generation (Snakes & Arrows is proving to be one of the band’s worst selling studio albums), but there’s still plenty of fans for them to bank upon for a few more years of large stadium tours and, God bless ’em if they want to mount their undertakings on the back of a barely noticed studio album.
While I may have first learned about Rush during junior high, I also learned a few other things, like how the dinosaurs ruled the Earth for a very long time. And last Saturday night, I got a chance to see how dinosaurs ruled the Earth again.
Introduction Video – Dream Sequence with Alex and Neil followed by Geddy and his Scottish Counterpart
The Main Monkey Business
The Larger Bowl (with Bob & Doug McKenzie introduction)
Between The Wheels
Introduction Video – The Alex/Leela Board Rant
Workin’ Them Angels
Armor And Sword
The Way The Wind Blows
The Spirit of Radio
Tom Sawyer (with South Park/Lil’ Rush introduction)
One Little Victory
A Passage to Bangkok
Image of Rush belt buckle courtesy of Rush Backstage Club. Get your own for only $19.99!