Watching Rush last Friday at the United Center in Chicago for what will likely be the last time, I was torn between the tale of two sets: one predictable and lackluster, and one that left me wishing the band would stick around for another tour or two. The trio performed a reverse chronological set, but rather than mining deep into their catalog during the first half, they relied heavily on songs that were mainstays of their concerts for years (and they also skipped too many stops along the way). The second set helped redeem the evening, and if this is truly the band’s last stand, it was an impressive way to end a forty plus year run.
One can forgive Rush for wanting to play three songs from their highly regarded last studio effort, Clockwork Angels, and though “Far Cry,” off of Snakes and Arrows was an uninspired choice since they just performed it two years ago, it’s still a great track. So far so good. However, the inclusion of “The Main Monkey Business” off the same album was a complete waste of time – an uninspiring instrumental that pales in comparison to some of the band’s other work.
Then Rush did what they often do, relying on what I refer to as the “first-track syndrome.” Literally every other track of the first set (and the first of the second set) was taken from the first track of one of their albums, so instead of getting a surprise or two, we instead heard songs that have been performed numerous times in the past: “One Little Victory,” “Animate,” “Roll the Bones,” “Distant Early Warning” and “Subdivisions.” How much better would the concert have been if Rush had instead performed “Ceiling Unlimited,” “Between Sun and Moon,” “The Big Wheel,” “Kid Gloves” and “Digital Man”? On alternating concerts, Rush has been performing “How it Is” from Vapor Trails and “Between the Wheels” from Grace Under Pressure, and both would have been better choices the night I saw them.
On a night that could have showcased each album of the band’s career, the most glaring error of the evening was skipping entirely the albums Test for Echo, Presto and Hold Your Fire. Ignoring Power Windows made sense since the last tour highlighted five songs from that effort, but leapfrogging over the other three was unfortunate, especially since these are all strong albums that could have offered some interesting selections.
Then the band came out for the second set, and though I would have preferred a few additional surprises, the truth is that it was incredible from start to finish. I also got lucky and got to see them perform both “Natural Science” and “Jacob’s Ladder,” whereas on other nights they’ve substituted the former for “The Camera Eye” or for nothing at all. My second set went as follows:
The Spirit of Radio
Hemispheres, Part 1: Prelude
Cygnus X-1, Part 1 and 3
Closer to the Heart
2112: Overture, The Temples of Syrinx, Presentation, Grand Finale
What You’re Doing
Geddy Lee had to screech his way through much of the latter part of the set, and I would have been just as happy hearing an instrumental medley, but overall he did a pretty solid job with the tunes. The big surprises were “Jacob’s Ladder,” which hadn’t been performed live since 1980, and “Lakeside Park” and “What You’re Doing,” which hadn’t been played since 1978 and 1977, respectively. It was also very cool hearing the first part of “Hemispheres” for the first time since the Counterparts tour.
Visually, the concert was appealing in that the band’s crew gradually simplified the stage, so that what started as an intricate steam punk theme slowly evolved into a simple stage with a few amps on chairs and a screen backdrop make to look like a gymnasium, a sort of Benjamin Button for the stage, if not for the performers themselves.
As always, the band employed a great number of prerecorded tracks triggered via foot pedals, from backing vocals to keyboards and sound effects. I’ve learned to accept this over the years, though it detracts from the musicianship of the band. I would have much prefer to see three guys on stage playing everything live. Nonetheless, the band will largely be known for its solid live performing, and last Friday’s show was no exception. I bid Rush a fond farewell.