Thursday, June 25, 2015

A (Sort of) Farewell to Kings/Channeling Neil Peart, Part II

In Part I of this post, I talked about the first set of the June 10th Rush concert I recently attended (really just because I was "In the Mood"), and let the songs guide my reminiscence of my ten years as a Rush fan ("Making Memories" if you will). Here we have part II. 

1. Tom Sawyer: I don't even need to say anything about this song. Rush's most popular song. This is no deep cut, but it still gives me chills every time it starts. My drum teacher Jim had introduced me first to "Closer to the Heart" (mentioned later), which I liked. He tried to have me play "Tom Sawyer" but I was intimidated by the amount of notes on the page, and held off for a while. When I asked him to bring it back out again, I was instantly hooked. This was drumming on a level I'd never experienced before (at that age, having listened only to pop, country, and some classic rock for most of my life). I proceeded to pursue Rush's discography (using mostly FYE stores because I had no idea where to shop for music when I was 15) and devoured every album. On June 10th, I didn't quite catch the opening moment because we were running to our new seats, but it was still a command performance. And the South Park "Li'l Rush" parody gets funnier every time.

2. The Camera Eye: A deep cut that resurfaced during 2011's Time Machine Tour, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Moving Pictures. It is one of the longer songs at almost 11 minutes, describing the hustle and bustle of big cities, switching back and forth between sharply focused verses and a deeply satisfying mid-tempo rock riff. It was also here (during the show) that I could not help but admire Neil Peart and Rush's control - if I was playing these songs, I'd be excitedly speeding the tempos up every song, or at least trying desperately not to. But these guys make it look easy (even if they are playing to a click track).

3. The Spirit of Radio: This can be best summed up by Mike's reaction as he sat next to me. The song's opening riff poured out of Alex Lifeson's amps and all I heard from my left was, "Aw, yes!" It's the great listener's anthem whose message about music and artists vs. advertisers and corporate executives still rings true today. I love "begin[ning] my day with a friendly voice, a companion unobtrusive." And when the lights go from rainbows over the crowd to small intimate Jamaica colored spots for the reggae-ish part? That's just gravy.

4. Jacob's Ladder: Another deep cut from 1980 - an epic grooving jam featuring a brief but epic lyric that, if you close your eyes, really makes you feel like the heavens' fury is coming down in a storm (which is appropriate for this week's Buffalo weather).

5. Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres, Part 1: Prelude: This track (leading into its own part I) is the only one I couldn't identify in the first five seconds...but as soon as I heard the signature riff I knew it. This is another one where reading the backdrop of the song is quite helpful. For one, in the studio track, even I have to admit that Geddy's high vocals are sometimes hard to follow. For another, it's also a pretty cool tale - again heavy on the sci-fi, though this one features a spacefaring protagonist.
6. Cygnus X-1, Book I: Parts 1 and 3 (with drum solo): The gift that keeps on giving.

7. Closer to the Heart: "This is a great song from 'A Farewell to Kings''s got a pretty little acoustic intro." As soon as Geddy said it, the entire audience quaked with anticipation and then broke into raucous cheers. This was the first Rush song I learned to play on the drums, and, as my friend Mick stated leading up to the concert, it proved that radio-friendly songs could have loftier lyrics and more complex themes. I defy anyone not to sing along with Geddy when he tells us we can be the captain and he will draw the chart. I DEFY YOU. 

8. Xanadu: No, this is not that Olivia Newton-John movie. But it is based on the same Coleridge poem. Man, people got a lot of mileage out of his work - that movie, Citizen Kane, and a Rush epic that, in 1978, had the works - gong hits, chimes, woodblock and cowbell hits, as well as thundering rolling-down-the-stairs drum fills. They brought a little bit of that magic back for this, and Peart could be seen rising from his throne to hammer the chime notes of the song's introduction - which was pretty cool.

9. 2112: Parts I, II, IV, VII: A retrospective wouldn't be complete without the 20-minute, 37-second song that put Rush on the map. Admittedly, they did a shortened version for this concert. But as the opening ARP Odyssey Synthesizer tones hit my ears and the overture burst into existence, I was immediately transported to yet another dystopian tale, a concept revived in 2012's Clockwork Angels. As Geddy alternately channels the protagonist (with his discovery of the guitar and music) and the Temple Priests (who shut the former down), it's easy to see why this song brought them back from the brink of musical failure and thrust them into a spotlight that carries on to this day.

1. Lakeside Park: This encore went all the way back to 1974-5. The first two songs haven't been played by them live in decades, since the vocals go pretty high and Geddy says his head threatens to explode. But a true retrospective necessitated bringing them back. So they tuned down a key or two, but these songs haven't lost a step. I love "Lakeside Park" in particular because it epitomizes Geddy and Alex's ability to write music that completely captures the mood of Neil's lyrics. It even takes me back to playing in parks when I was a boy, although "Beaty Park" doesn't have quite the same magic to it. Maybe Mulberry Park.

2. Anthem: The song that introduced 1975 to the new lineup of Rush, and introduced me to Ayn Rand's philosophies. Sort of. I didn't quite look that deeply into it at the time, I was just enraptured by the sheer prog mastery of the song. I put on this one and the guitar riff started and immediately went into creative drum fills that blasted out of my headphones and I knew I had found my new drum hero.

3. What You're Doing: A great song off their 1974 debut album (before Neil joined the band) - just classic bluesy rebellious rock that needs no explanation. Just turn up your volume and let it blast. Oh, and definitely check out this video someone made of the Peanuts gang singing it:  

4. Working Man (W/Garden Road outro): Ending on a classic, this song is the one track from the 1970s that has always been a staple. I'd like to think even the guys in Rush never get tired of this one, that they still have fun with the guitar solo section. Everyone can relate to this song in some way. Even if you don't understand any other Rush get this one. And the fact that they teased Garden Road (a fun track whose lyrics are almost unintelligible, only released on two live albums recorded back in 1974, shortly after Neil joined the band) at the end is icing on the retrospective cake.

So that was long and self-indulgent. But I hope I made it easy to see how awesome this show was, and how much of a presence this band has been in my life for the past ten years. And how, even if you're not a Rush fan, or if you stopped listening when they introduced synths in the '80s, they still deserve a great deal of merit. Here's hoping for a lot more music, and even a few more shows from the best damn trio period. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A (Sort Of) Farewell to Kings, or Channeling Neil Peart (Part I)

So about two weeks ago I saw Rush for the fifth time. It might be the last time, unfortunately, solely because they're getting to the point where they're less inclined to be away from their families for long tours that last months at a time. Which is totally understandable, since they're celebrating 40 years of doing that. Forty years, twenty studio albums (plus ten live albums), and solo projects from all three band members (from the experimental fun of guitarist Alex Lifeson's Victor, to the straightforward rock of bass player Geddy Lee's My Favorite Headache, to the drum solo instructionals and thought-provoking books written by drummer Neil Peart), movie cameos, and, of course, concerts, have provided me with hours upon hours of enjoyment in the mere nine years since I became a Rush fan. I mean, it's not the end - they still might do smaller tours or at least infrequent performances (as Mr. Lifeson said in a recent interview), and they probably have more music in them. But in honor of what could be their last big tour, and following in my drumming hero's footsteps with his own blog posts, I thought I'd explore my own retrospective of Rush's albums, using, as a guide, the setlist to what was arguably THE best show I've seen by them.

Before I start, a huge shout out to the First Niagara Center. When a small structural problem threatened the safety of my fellow concertgoers and myself in section 302, they took decisive action to move us to new seats to keep enjoying the show. Strong work.

1. The Anarchist: For my most recent birthday, Fiancée Reptar got me a copy of the Clockwork Angels novel, written by long-time sci-fi writer Kevin J. Anderson and based on the 2012 concept album's lyrics by Neil Peart. The book is solid, a good page-turner that does a great job of fleshing out the characters introduced in Clockwork Angels' twelve songs. This song's tom beat and driving guitar riff made for a great start to the show as they burst into their set.

2. The Wreckers: One of my favorites from the latest album, and one that really comes to life in the book. This song channels the uneasy and lawless concord that the protagonist finds at this point in his journey, which is soon shattered. Also a fantastic use of strings to simulate the idea of a boat on choppy waters, which persists through the whole song.

3. Headlong Flight (w/Drumbastica): The opening bass riff of this song leads into a song that is just as reckless as its title and story indicate, even while it reminisces about the crazy journey the protagonist has taken. The chorus is one of the hardest-rocking in Rush's catalog, and a listener is treated to intriguing images even as he/she can't help but head-bang along. Neil's new pattern of throwing in multiple smaller drum solos instead of one large one continues to delight as he drums his way into our hearts.

4. Far Cry: I became a Rush fan in late 2005, shortly after they completed their R30 tour, and I listened to their entire discography obsessively. I remember regretting that I had just missed that tour, and hoping that I would someday get to see them. My wish came true in 2007 when they announced their new album. The 12-second teaser for this song was unbelievable. And then later that year, when I saw Rush for the first time, the second set exploded (both literally and figuratively) as they ripped through this knock-you-through-the-wall number. Five shows later, this song still has that effect on me. As my friend Stephen said after that first show, "Far Cry was SICK!"

5. The Main Monkey Business: A complex instrumental that channels both a jungle feel as well as the metaphorical fun of its title. Neil's explanation in a 2007 issue of Modern Drummer of how the parts for this song came about is recommended reading for any drummer. There's a part at around the three-minute mark when Neil's hands are stretched from one end of his kit to another and his only thought is, "I don't know why I did that to myself."

6. How It Is: In my opinion, this is far from the best song on 2002's Vapor Trails, but still a great deep cut for this retrospective set, with potent lyrics about the importance of expecting the worst while hoping for the best. It's actually a pretty good lyric for today's world.

7. Animate: Rush's 1993 album explored post-grunge alt-rock. My friend Chris tried to get me to name my least favorite Rush album, and cited Counterparts as a potential example - that was a mistake. I love this album. It hit on complex themes (standard fare for any Rush album), as well as commonplace themes in a complex way (including AIDS, bravado (but not the song "Bravado"), and even love). It has some of Rush's coolest songs, including one of my top 5 - "Cold Fire."

8. Roll the Bones: The song inspired by an attitude of taking chances took its own chance in 1991 when Peart wrote an interlude inspired by "LL Cool J and Public Enemy" in a rap that beautifully captures Rush's flippant personalities amidst otherwise serious music. This was further highlighted by a great backdrop video at this concert featuring a host of famous Rush fans mouthing along to the rap, including Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, Peter Dinklage, the Trailer Park Boys, and more.

9. Between the Wheels: This song (and all the following songs from this concert) came out before I was born, but it is arguably my favorite song by the power trio. I love the metaphors describing the downsides to apathy (which, as a concept, is a pet peeve of mine), superimposed on a reggae/ska-infused riff. The song, last track on 1984's Grace Under Pressure, crashes in with power organ spikes and then drags you between the proverbial musical wheels and it's awesome.

10. Subdivisions: Rush's most famous song, post-1981. "Signals" is a fantastic album, even though the members of Rush are hesitant about it because the guitar-vs.-synth balance was a struggle (as it was for so many fans who were listening to Rush in the early 1980s). This album features my favorite Rush song that I thought would never be played live - "Losing It", a beautiful tribute to Hemingway that heavily features Ben Mink and a monstrous electric violin solo. As it turns out, a week after this concert I watched, Ben Mink CAME TO A RUSH CONCERT AND PLAYED IT WITH THEM ONSTAGE AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE. I SHOULD HAVE GONE TO THAT ONE. DAMN.

At the end of intermission, we got moved to a box (for the aforementioned safety reasons), which was AWESOME. Much closer, parallel to the stage, such a cool way to experience the show. No wonder people pay the big bucks for those.

I wrote about the whole concert, but it's way too long of an entry for one post. So here lies the division - End of Part I.