Assuming boldness, generosity and relevance are laudable traits, Rush’s current tour alone could make the first-time nominees a shoo-in for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when next year’s inductees are announced.
The trio’s Bell Centre concert on Thursday clocked in at nearly three hours, not counting intermission. With its extensive catalogue, Rush could have filled that time in the same manner as so many of their contemporaries: with hit after singalong after hit, and a token acknowledgement of the new album dropped like a plastic bag at the dog park.
That has never been Rush’s way of operating, but even by the standard of a band that has always confidently presented its most recent songs in concert, Thursday’s show was characterized by a staunch refusal to take the path of no resistance. Clockwork Angels, the group’s 20th studio disc, has been widely embraced, and as the first true concept album by a band that fits somewhat in the progressive-rock mould, its storyline merits more than a speed-read. Still, it would be courageous even for an outfit with a four-album catalogue to play an unbroken hour of new material, as Rush did in the centrepiece of Thursday’s concert.
The post-intermission block of Clockwork Angels could have left the first half of the night clear for a set of standards, but just as Rush maintained a deep focus on its current album, the trio went searching for deep cuts from its history. (At least, from a certain period of its history, with significant attention paid to the mid-1980s.) Subdivisions was a given, and The Big Money may have been familiar enough, but anyone who expected the sinister futuristic drama The Body Electric was hunting for spoilers before showtime.
The concentration of ’80s album tracks didn’t sound dated overall: if the synth shower in Grand Designs was of its time, Alex Lifeson’s taut guitar was timeless. The same held true for the anti-nationalism of Territories, given a modern hook with an animated film whose iconography borrowed from the Anonymous collective.
Geddy Lee’s voice remains nearly as supple as his bass, and while the castrato wails of yore are the stuff of legend, they overshadow the affecting moments when he has descended from the stratosphere. Built around his vulnerable shudder, Bravado offered a blissful comedown between a breathless spin through The Analog Kid and the hard-riffing instrumental Where’s My Thing?, which contained the most fluid of Neil Peart’s three spotlights (in place of his usual behemoth drum solo).
As an eight-member string section took their seats at the back of the stage when the entr’acte ended, it was clear Rush was about to pull out the stops. (And not just with a post-intermission comedy short featuring Lee, Lifeson and Peart as cloudland gnomes, maintaining the most tenuous of connections to the new album’s themes and nudging the band’s film clips even farther into mind-warping surrealism.) While the visual element had been typically vibrant before, the stage came alive in the Clockwork Angels segment: the steampunk machinery chugging through Caravan, the blitz of fireworks in Carnies, the versatile mini-screens that changed formation and acted as extensions of the main backdrop.
What mattered more than that, more than the audacity of the set list, was the strength of these songs. Some ranked as the show’s toughest: The Anarchist featured crimson lighting to match Lifeson’s hellion theme, and with Lee’s sustained cries and a wildfire instrumental section that sounded partly improvised, the triumphant Headlong Flight was as loose as this legendarily polished band has been in decades.
Other new numbers ranked as the show’s most tender: the bittersweetness of The Wreckers was straightforward but stunningly emotional (somewhat at odds with the artful but cold cut-out animation accompanying it), and Lee demonstrated excellent taste in introducing The Garden — centred on a touching and true philosophy of life — as one of the band’s favourites.
It’s hard to drown out a power trio of Rush’s standing, so the strings were present for colour, not bombast. It’s to their credit that they often blended into the songs’ fabric. When they made their presence felt, it mattered, especially in the shimmer of The Garden and, unexpectedly, in the jagged instrumental YYZ, one of a handful of classics that followed the Clockwork Angels songs.
It needs to be noted that many of the 12,400 in the audience reacted more viscerally to the closing evergreens — including The Spirit of Radio, Tom Sawyer and three segments from the towering 2112 — than to the rest of the show. It also needs to be noted that Rush has never sought easy applause. Instead of skimming the surface of their back catalogue and Clockwork Angels, Lee, Lifeson and Peart took pride in the richness of their past and present. All hall-of-famers should have as much to celebrate.