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Review: Rush performs excellent, heart-filled R40 concert in Phoenix (Includes first-hand account)

Fists pump in the air with vigor; clapping hands sync into a thunderous rhythm; beers are thrust toward the sky; and unbridled cheers energize the misty stage.

Since the band’s first album in 1974, Rush has soared to become one of most prominent names in rock and roll. For more than four decades, Rush as developed, innovated and improved its signature musical style of masterfully complex compositions, eclectic drum, bass and guitar solos, and sublime lyrical motifs that draw heavily from fantasy, philosophy and science fiction. And Monday night in Phoenix, the trio once again proved why they’ve earned every ounce of their legendary status.

Despite each member being in his 60s, the Canadian power trio transcended their old age and gave a stellar, three-hour performance that showcased their music in reverse-chronological order through 25 songs—beginning with heavy rock riffs from their latest album, “Clockwork Angels,” to the super technical and physically demanding songs in the 1976 instant-classic, “2112,” and ending the encore with their 1974 debut album, “Rush.”

Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson perform duo riffs while playing  The Anarchist.

Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson perform duo riffs while playing “The Anarchist.”

R40 is celebrating 40 years since Neil Peart joined the band and they released the first album. Rush has stated this is likely their last big tour.

The stage backdrop was decidedly simple to show how Geddy Lee (bass, keyboard, lead vocals), Neil Peart (drums, percussion, lyrics) and Alex Lifeson (guitar, backup vocals) have evolved as a band throughout the decades. A screen behind Peart displayed animated symbols and video clips that represented the album each song is from. For the first few songs, elaborate steampunk set pieces bordered the musicians, and speakers and subwoofers towered behind the trio. Crew members in orange-red R40 jumpsuits transformed the stage when the album being played changed.

Eventually the steampunk props were swapped out for TV-like washing machines. Soon those went away, too. The band held back on their usual pyrotechnics, with only two explosions rocking the stadium. The laser shows were also noticeably less showy than previous concerts. Slowly the towering speaker system was dismantled into a more humble design, and after the intermission Peart’s majestic drum set was swapped out for a black and chrome throwback replica. As the night went on, the stage became almost barren of props.

Geddy Lee rocks a guitar solo during  The Wreckers  in Phoenix on July  27.

Geddy Lee rocks a guitar solo during “The Wreckers” in Phoenix on July, 27.

Only the music remained. And that’s all we ever needed.

Lee, Lifeson and Peart stayed true to their quirky humor and started the show off hidden behind a massive screen as an animated video showed where the band has toured during R40. A few seconds of iconic songs played alongside each performance stop. When the animation reached Phoenix the sound of Peart’s thudding drums resonated throughout the U.S. Airways Center, and the crowd erupted with applause and roars of approval. Within seconds, heavy-rock riffs from Lifeson and Lee followed up Peart’s introduction and the screen lifted. The band launched into powerful performances of “The Anarchist” and “The Wreckers” and “Headlong Flight” from “Clockwork Angels.” Even though the band lacked the harmonizing string ensemble from the 2012 “Clockwork Angels” tour, each song sounded amazing and drove the sold-out crowd to its feet.

Starting off the show with some of the faster, harder rock songs completely energized the crowd. I rarely saw anybody not bobbing their head, clapping or otherwise bouncing along with the excellent music.

Neil Peart playing a stellar drum section during  The Wreckers.

Neil Peart playing a stellar drum section during “The Wreckers.”

After hammering off the last few chords in “Headlong Flight,” Lee talked to the audience and then began playing “Farcry” from the 2007 album, “Snakes and Arrows,” and then they seamlessly transitioned into “The Main Monkey Business.” Lee then let people know they’d be playing a song new to live performances, “How It Works,” from the 2002 album, “Vapor Trails.”

Geddy Lee performs the opening set of Rush s R40 tour.

Geddy Lee performs the opening set of Rush’s R40 tour.

Next up was the quirky, philosophical song “Animate,” from my favorite album, “Counterparts,” which was released in 1993. The backdrop screen behind Peart displayed some of the main lyrical chorus alongside Lee’s pointed singing. Animate is a strange song, and I really enjoyed how they approached this live performance of it.
Rush is well known for whimsical, if not hilarious videos that accompany select songs. This time they used the catchy, fan-favorite song “Roll the Bones” to let Peter Dinklage, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Tom Morello and others in on the fun by rapping parts of the song via the video. It was incredible. I’m a huge fan of the song itself, which was performed with magnificent bravado, and when combined with the video it made for an awesome experience.
The first act ended with the synth-heavy song “Between the Wheels,” from the 1984 album, “Grace Under Pressure,” and the ultra-classic “Subdivisions.” This is the third time I’ve heard Rush play “Subdivisions,” and it was the best yet. I felt like the musicians were giving the intensely-technical song every ounce of love they could muster.

The second act started off with just as much self-deprecating humor as a Rush fan can expect. A lengthy video called “No Country for Old Hens” showed outtakes and mistakes from the years of producing previous concert videos, all of which were hilarious. The video ended with a South Park clip the band commissioned for their “Snakes and Arrows” tour, and that paved the way for the instantly-recognizable tone from the 80s radio hit, “Tom Sawyer,” from perhaps the band’s best-known album, 1981’s “Moving Pictures.” The less frequently heard, but much loved, The Camera’s Eye” came next, followed by a majestic rendition of “Spirit of Radio,” and the always fun “Jacob’s Ladder.”

The Canadian progressive rock trio Rush performs in Phoenix on July  27.

The Canadian progressive rock trio Rush performs in Phoenix on July, 27.

The next 30 minutes were a pure treat for more-earnest Rush fans. They played both books of the multi-part, mostly instrumental epic “Cyngus X-1,” from the 1977 album, “A Farewell to Kings.” They started with the Hemisphere’s prelude and transited into The Voyage prologue and eventually The Voyage part three. And this is when the audience gets to witness why Neil Peart is known as the best solo drummer in the world. Between the two parts of The Voyage, Peart has enters his rock god trance and bombasts the crowd with an incredible drum solo.

This is the fourth time I’ve watched Peart’s seven-to-10 minute drum solos in person, and I’m still flabbergasted at how inhuman he in on the drum kit. His fingers flit with grace among the dozens of drums and snares. It’s as if his arms are made of air. One hand twirls a drumstick and the other knocks out licks on a xylophone, and then Peart tosses the twirled stick into the air, elegantly catches it and smashes the wood down on a cymbal. Even after 40 years with Rush, his hands still move so fast that during parts of the solo they transform into a blur on the overhead screen.

Neil Peart in a drum solo is magic—the man’s musical prowess is a spectacle that’s impossible to give proper justice with mere words.

Neil Peart energizes the audience with a powerful performance at Rush s concert on July 27  in Phoen...

Neil Peart energizes the audience with a powerful performance at Rush’s concert on July 27, in Phoenix.

The last hour of the concert blew me away with the craftsmanship each band member put into their performance. The beloved pop-rock hit, “Closer to the Heart,” began with Lifeson jamming out on an acoustic guitar, and then the band transitioned to a slightly more rock-oriented rendition of the song. The concert wound down with an eclectic playing of “Xanadu,” and a perfect “2112.”

The encore was a fitting send off. The band jumped all the way back to its debut album and played “Lakeside Park,” “Anthem,” “What You’re Doing,” and an outrageously fun version of “Working Man,” that had each member giving their all to the song. Peart even played Lifeson’s guitar with his drumsticks.

It was obvious that Lee, Lifeson and Peart put everything they had into this performance. They put on an incredible show. And if this is the end of the band’s tours, then I’m glad to say that the legendary Canadian trio went out like the rock kings they truly are.

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