Nationwide Arena, Columbus, August 29
by Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

First off, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that Ticketmaster shows at arenas are always too expensive to get in to, to expensive to drink at ($10 for a little cup of Bud), too expensive to buy tour merchandise ($50 for a t-shirt), and too much of a hassle to fight the crowds to attend. A two-hour arena show is almost never worth the price or the headache when a much fresher band can be seen at a tiny bar for almost nothing. The prospect of attending a Rush concert in a giant hockey arena with 20,000 other people has never sounded appealing and was only ever a personal wish during “what would you do with a time machine?” conversations.

This isn’t to say that I’m not a fan of a few Rush albums. The problem lies in the fact that those few albums were released nearly 30 years ago, and while the band would surely play at least one or two cuts to satisfy fans of their early work, it’s also a safe bet that a show supporting a new album would focus mostly on the current material. What band wants to play the same damn songs for three decades? There’s surely a special tier of Hell for naughty musicians that forces them to play their hits for eternity. Nobody wants to be the lame one calling on a band to act like trained monkeys and play the hits, except... well, if it means completely nerding out and begging Rush to play my childhood soundtrack, Moving Pictures, from front to back, louder and tighter than any other band I’ve ever seen perform, it’s worth it. Rush had the brilliant idea to just go ahead and play, on the aptly named Time Machine Tour, the album that defines them as a band. Seeing as it’s the 30th anniversary of the original release next year, and it is their most popular album (quadruple platinum) and the lead-off track is their most recognizable song, “Tom Sawyer,” it’s a solid move for the band to wrangle the diehards that were actually able to swallow albums like Power Windows and Vapor Trails and those nostalgic for the butt-cuts and baseball shirts of the prog rock and metal of yore.

Rush was able to transcend the party rock vibe of Judas Priest, Van Halen, Iron Maiden and their ilk with muscular and intelligent instrumental athleticism, while at the same time offering D&D geeks some hobbit- and elf-style lyrical imagery. Despite the fact that you can buy reproductions of old tour shirts at Target nowadays, this concert was as much a vintage tour-shirt pissing contest as it was an air drumming competition. I too can’t stop myself from drumming the fills from any number of Rush songs on the dashboard when they’re on the radio, but 20,000 of the best Rush air drummers in the Midwest corralled into one hockey arena is a sight to behold. Like disciples bowing to their overlord, the crowd air-banged along to every double-cymbal crash Neil Peart threw out. It did not stop there. When Alex Lifeson went into a solo, hell, even when he went into a strumming hook like in “Freewill,” better than half the crowd was mimicking him almost exactly. When Geddy Lee hit his solos or bass runs—even when he played synthesizer lines—the crowd followed along. And this wasn’t just willy-nilly air playing. Most of these people are probably musicians themselves, so they were on time, even when the infallible Peart blew a fill (on new song “BU2B”), they played along over it, more than likely shaking their heads at the mistake.

Lee can still wail the high notes he’s famous for, but as the show wore on his voice fatigued. The dude is 57 for chrissakes, but for the most part he sounded just like he did when he was 27. The sound was gigantic, even thought there were only three guys on stage, and they barely gave my ears a rest. Think of listening to that first subsonic synthesizer note on “Tom Sawyer” and wishing it could get 20 times louder and clearer than your maxed-out stereo. As far as faithfulness to the original material goes, Moving Pictures sounded almost unerringly like the record. Short of a slight tweak on the end of “Tom Sawyer” to avoid the huge drum finish, the songs were spot-on. Lifeson, Lee and Peart seemed to play with more power the longer the show went on, hitting harder and blazing out solos like giddy teenagers. The synthesizers sounded the same as when they blasted out of my hi-fi, the bass and lead guitars were indistinguishable from the vinyl. The drums only sounded different because of the cavernous bathtub-shaped venue.

Rush pieced together a silly introductory movie telling the story of a fictional band called Rash that ran about 10 minutes too long. Lifeson blasted the end of the movie away with the razor sharp staccato guitar intro to “The Spirit of Radio” and all the yuk-yuk humor of the short was forgiven. Let’s just say that for actors, they are the absolute masters of prog-rock wankery. The movie was a nod to some of the current pop culture tongue-in-cheek reverence toward Rush (think Judd Apatow, Jason Segel, et al.), and the band’s awareness that they have been, for a long time now, on the verge of being caricatures of their past greatness. Regardless of the near stigma attached to being a Rush fan, the fact remains that they can still totally shred—they pretty much invented shredding. They are the epitome of arena-rock dinosaurs—out of fashion and far from top of the charts—but they are also a self-aware spectacle of musical mastery that doesn’t mind either being cool or being cast out. And the show was totally cheesed out, super gnarly and wicked awesome.