OK, so a Canadian band on the Fourth of July? Why not? Besides, there were fireworks. In fact, I think they may have detonated a couple of fiddle players.
Wait, let me back up.
By the second time I entered the Summerfest grounds on the 4th, I could tell my annual Fest-Burn was well on its way. Yes, I said SECOND time.
Perhaps I better back up a bit further.
Last year was a first for me: our FIRST Robotics team participated in a demo on the grounds, so we had to get there early to set up. It marked the first time I had been into Summerfest BEFORE the gates opened. It was kind of exciting. (Yeah, you see what I did with first/FIRST there? QUATILY)
This year went one further. I not only was on the grounds by 10:30, I got to DRIVE over the grounds to the Sports Stage. It was very exciting.
And the robots were fun. Demos are much less stressful than regional competitions, and our robot was working pretty well. We used the opportunity to try out some new drivers.
The field is mostly out in the sun. I think this year was a personal best for me; my First Day Sunburn didn’t set in until the Eighth Day.
After a couple of hours, we rolled the equipment and robot out to the truck. We briefly debated rolling into the Amphitheater loading dock, telling them the equipment was for the band; it would have been pretty much a foolproof plan.
Because, of course, the band was Rush. A couple of the kids were going too; one, who had recently taken up the drums was especially jazzed to see one of his heroes play. We loaded up the truck and took all the stuff back to the school, stopped at home for a brief sit and to spruce up, and headed back down.
Funny story: one of my clients/friends owns a couple of buildings in the Third Ward, with associated parking areas. Although he has some young guys working the lots on Fest Days, he lets me park there no charge; I usually just have to have the Sekrit Password. But this year, he has done one better; I laughed when Parking Dude merely looked at my plate, said “you’re good” and waved us by. Rockstar parking.
So we got in early, saw some music, had some beers and food, and settled in for rock.
Rush, Clockwork Angels tour.
Of course, I was a maladroit geeky teenager, so I loved Rush from way back. Saw them on the Spirit of Radio and Moving Pictures tours, and when I finally had a girlfriend, took her to see them on the Signals tour (I KNOW! A girl at a Rush show!). When they stopped working after Neil Peart’s tragedies, we were disappointed, but you know, tragedies. So when they got back together and recorded the vital and muscular Vapor Trails –not only that, but played in Milwaukee — we had to go and it was so satisfying to see them back together, playing so well, and having such a damn good time doing it. Oh, and the flame-pots were hot enough to feel it out in the seats, even 30 rows back. And they played two sets, a couple of hours and change, with no opening bands.
Since then, Rush has experienced kind of a second success in their career, recording some music that stands as the best they’ve done, with successful tours, and then finally being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame last year. SO what do they do? Of course, record a sci-fi concept album.
…wait, what? Now they’re just fucking with us, right? Are they INVITING the comparisons to Spinal Tap? They still get mocked for the kind of lyrics they put into their LAST sci-fi concept album.
But the Rush of 2013 is not the Rush of 1976 and Clockwork Angels is a Far Cry (see what I done there) from 2112.
The essence of the story described is much more personal and less epic; the music is less metal and more intricate; and the lyrics are less “spacy”, not to mention less juvenile. Neil Peart has said that he worked hard to make the lyrics less didactic, less preachy, and more introspective. He wanted to outline a story without explicitly narrating it.
But I get ahead of myself. The first half of the show was dedicated to mostly back-catalog, and I was surprised at how much of the derided 80s/90s ‘keyboard’ songs they rolled out; also surprised at how strong those songs presented in a live version. Especially the Signals material, which always seemed a little thin to me on record. The stage was dressed in steampunk theme, with setpieces behind Lifeson and Lee.
A full backstage screen provided graphics, animations and projections; for the band’s entrance, a mini-movie of a tax auditor’s search for the Watchmaker’s Office played (with the band playing a trio of snarky gnomes) as the stage set was revealed and the band hit the stage to roar through Subdivisions.
As Elvis Costello did last year, they played for 20 minutes before even stopping to say ‘hi’. In the next half-hour, the band reinvigorated some older material while the screen went through its paces, illustrating and augmenting what the band was doing. And at strategic points, pillars of flames or sparks startled the audience, with waves of heat washing out over the crowd. After playing “Far Cry”, Geddy explained that they were old men and needed a bit of rest.
The Good Part
When at the theater, I love where the play starts with the cast kind of meandering onto the stage without a blackout; eventually the audience notices and takes their seats and quiets down. Rush did that on their return to the stage. First I noticed that the three round things behind Lifeson had pictures of Rod Serling on them. Then, amorphous floating clouds started appearing on the back screen; they grew, and a subtle rhythmic noise started rising from the PA. eventually it could be seen to correspond to a slow strobe on the screen and then, to my complete surprise, a number of string musicians filed onto the rear stage riser, behind the drum riser and in front of the screen.
Eventually, the amorphous clouds coalesced, and the band returned with “Caravan”, opening the second set with 9 of the 12 tracks on their most recent album.
And it was glorious.
The songs all stood on their own as songs, but together, they had a coherence and synergy. The band put their backs into it (AND used their teeth!) and my god, what took the band so long to add a string section to their stage show? Those people in the back added so much depth and color to the songs (as well as the couple of older songs that they played on) and you could hear what Geddy Lee was striving for all these years with the keyboards.
And the stage. The stage sets were at their peak. The steampunk themes played off the themes of the album, and the back screen helped to illustrate the goings-on. Not only that, but there was a whole panoply of overhead lighting and rigging that took off. Quite literally; during “Clockwork Angels, ten overhead screens and projection spots lowered, swooped and danced around the stage while animations of the angels played. At times, the stage looked like the end of Close Encounters, with dozens of lights settling down to just above the band, twirling and shooting out into the crowd.
As I mentioned, this is the point where I think they detonated a string musician, or at least ignited a fiddle player.
The Concept Portion of the show culminated with The Garden, the finale of the album, and the overhead lighting rigs came to life again, soaring over the stage as the animations flitted from the back screens to overhead and back again. I haven’t seen a stage show as enthralling and enveloping since the high points of Genesis’ touring days. Even the dude behind me, yelling “2112!” at intervals was more amusing than annoying, blissfully missing the point that what the band was playing was kind of the same thing, with better musicianship, writing, and less immature viewpoints. Also, fewer pimpley teenagers in darkened apartments, cleaning their ditchweed on the album cover…
With the Concept over, it was time for Fan Fulfillment part of the show, featuring old favorites like Manhattan Project, YYZ, and Spirit of Radio (also a zombie favorite). The String ensemble also played on these songs (other than Spirit) and again, added an amazing depth and warmth, reinvigorating older material. Regrettably, the strings didn’t play on the encores, Tom Sawyer and 3 sections of 2112 (just for YOU, dude behind us!). After about three hours of show, the band walked off the stage, all grins.
Over forty years into their career, and they are still having fun. Still making vital, intelligent and compelling music and enjoying delivering it to appreciative fans; but never forgetting to play the fan favorites, because the die-hard fans are the ones who pay for it all. Still having fun doing it.
And so are we, Dirk, Lerxst and Pratt; so are we.