Rush’s Grand Design
Mea culpa. When Rush’s 20th studio disc Clockwork Angeles came out last year, I dismissed it out of hand – missing its 2112-like concept of dystopian complacency in the not too distant future. The Toronto trio’s three-hour siege of the Frank Erwin Center last night featured almost the entire LP, but that wasn’t the half of it.
Five days after the most notorious about-face in modern music – going from 30-year critical pariahs to induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (in Cleveland, no less, which broke the band by spinning 1974’s “Working Man” into an FM anthem) – Rush opened its Clockwork Angels tour in Austin. Two years since the Time Machine trek loaded up Moving Pictures in its entirety at the same venue, prog rock’s most enduring working men resumed their decades-old arena entitlement by picking up where the 1981 breakthrough left off.
“Subdivisions” first came as no surprise, the Signals kick-off being the hit that followed up Moving Pictures to even wider mass appeal, its New Wave synthesizer snaking through the tune’s melodic minefield like any high school’s invisible class, to whom it was aimed. That the band then fired up its album-mate six songs later – a personal favorite I’ve experienced only twice before in almost three decades of Rush concerts – came as something of a shock. Guitarist Alex Lifeson’s furious jigsaw fingering on “The Analog Kid” may have evidenced a bit of age-related corrosion, but the sophomore Signals romp remains a thrilling r-u-s-h.
Between those two songs, and throughout the hour-long first set, the band ping-ponged through its Eighties catalog as if Moving Pictures had reintroduced them to a wake deep enough to spin off a subsequent half-dozen whole album live recreations. If that day ever arrives, don’t be surprised when 1985’s Power Windows gets the call. Other than the new platter, Power Windows landed the most cuts off any Rush album, so if second Erwin Center play “The Big Money” slapped down an unwelcome flashback to Reagan-era posturing, its session sibling “Grand Designs” eschewed digital delicacy for razor’s edge live cacophony.
Hold Your Fire (1987) starter “Force Ten” bookended it beforehand at almost double its original tempo, a punky pace locked in-step with the stage dressing’s steampunk anachronisms and motored by Geddy Lee’s suspension cable bass burbling under Lifeson’s battering, industrial soul solo. “Limelight” afterward completed the “Grand Designs” sandwich only to make way for another Power Windows parallel to our contemporary isolationism, “Territories.”
Throw in back-to-back Roll the Bones winners, the ever expressive “Bravado” and instrumental rattler “Where’s My Thing?” – complete with Neil Peart’s initial drum solo – and that left only “Far Cry,” sole survivor between 1991’s Roll the Bones and its 2007 sponsor Snakes & Arrows. Thus ended Rush’s warm-up, fast and furious, “Far Cry” not only pounding like a set-list staple for decades to come, but also Seventies-hewn, an era the band hardly touches on these days.
Fifteen minutes barely counts as an intermission, but add another five for a typically hilarious high-end video introduction to Clockwork Angels, starring Undeclared simpatico Jay Baruchel, and there stacked plenty of time for an eight-piece string ensemble to nestle in behind the drum riser and remain there for the next hour-plus. Toronto native David Campbell – Beck’s father – arranged and conducted strings on the new album, whose near complete airing proved a welcome and immersive respite from the dizzying first half’s deep-cuts lottery.
New heavies “The Anarchist,” “Carnies,” and “Headlong Flight” proved monstrous riff scrums, bare knuckle band engagement of the most ancient power trio sort. The former’s teeth baring obliterated its recorded counterpart, no small feat given’s the tune’s classic jacketing, which was itself overridden by the latter’s exhilarating rocket ride straight out of 1975’s Fly By Night. Lifeson and Peart’s instrumental cage match found the string section practically sawing its wood and wire in half. Lee, meanwhile, sang better than he had all night, balladic moments such as “Clockwork Angels,” “Halo Effect,” and even an overwrought “The Garden” much friendlier to his now lower singing range than helium-high Seventies efforts. “Seven Cities of Gold” also benefited from string gravity.
Power Windows took a final bow in helping close the 90-minute second set with “Manhattan Project,” whose nuclear deadline imaging proved terrifying (Peart’s loose-change drum solo aside), particularly as followed by apocalyptic rejoinder “Red Sector A” off 1984’s expert Grace Under Pressure, a long-player begging for live resurrection. “YYZ” and “Spirit of the Radio” closed out and a requisite one-two of “Tom Sawyer” and the 2112 overture encored, both raw and thunderous, the last one finding Lee and Lifeson at the drum kit sharing a laugh and stretch with Peart. Boys will be boys.
Make no mistake, Rush continues showing its age, Lee advised to go silver fox with his locks, Lifeson finally employing either hair plugs or a hairpiece, and Peart as pug-nosed and portly as ever. And yet in rock & roll dog years – 59, 59, and 60, respectively – Rush has seldom played it looser, louder, or with more total self-assurance. Clockwork Angels’ fear and resignation of dwindling time mirrors its creators’ powerfully blunt live beat-downs. Where once Rush appeared fussy in its live rebooting of album tracks – stultified even – they’re now unbound and coming to your town.