Saturday, 11th August 2007
Article By Jeff Hodges
Today (Saturday, 11th August 2007) was the hottest day of 2007 in Dallas, topping off at 104 (40) degrees. At 10:30, the time of this writing, it is 93 (33). However, thanks to humidity the heat index is 95 (35) degrees what it effectively feels like outside right now with the sun down. This is par for the course in Texas in August, and it happens every year. You really never get used to it. You just drink lots of water and sweat. While yesterday wasn't technically the hottest day of the year it was the hottest FEELING day of the year. On August 11, 2007, the heat index got up to 108 (43) degrees. On days like these, the local weathermen advise people to stay indoors during the heat of the day. This would seem to hardly be like the type of day that you would want to go see a concert at an outdoor venue.
Yet 11th August was an auspicious day that was innocuously selected several months ago. Rush's tour planners selected this date for their Dallas stop on their Snakes & Arrows show. When I had received my ticket in April, I had fleeting thoughts about the usual August heat wave. However, as Rush's latest effort both fascinated and confounded me, these thoughts gave way to excitement as I experienced the open air, showers, and the green grass outside.
Just to situate myself within this brief eden, I am a self-admitted fanboy. Rush was the soundtrack to my High School life and beyond. I have not missed Rush on tour since 1988. I saw them twice on Roll the Bones, but Primus was the opener what's a man to do? Regardless, I was looking forward to checking out their setlist plans in light of their relatively recent and rock-solid R30 tour. However, as the day came and I found my seat I mopped the sweat off my brow. The 7:30 start time came and went and I became concerned. I voiced this concern to my fellow attendee, Dave: "How are these three "seasoned" rockers from the Great White North going to fare performing a high-energy show in the kind of heat that most local Texans avoid?"
The setting sun stopped beating down on the stage at about 8:10 (bad design it faces due west!), and I made an assumption that admittedly robbed me of checking out the "Neil and Lerxst in bed" opening sequence that I had read about. I took the opportunity to get a t-shirt before the best designs were snatched up. As I waited in the mass, I heard the opening animation start with cash in hand. I silently berated the indecisive people in front of me for paying with a credit card. Finally, I hurriedly paid for my overly-priced T-shirt (they cost $15 in 1988 now they are $35 ugh!). Later, I wished that I had bought a different design. That's what I get for indulging in capitalism.
As the opening animation continued, I hurriedly used all of my martial arts skills to cut through the crowd. By the time I found my seat I had an elated leap in my chest as Alex enthusiastically ripped out the opening riff of "Limelight." He sounded nothing short of great. During this fan-favorite opener, I immediately noticed the stage setup. Above the band, there were three screens, the center being the largest. As they performed "Limelight," each screen stayed fixed and unmoving on a singular member of the band, almost as if we were sitting on the stage with them. It has been a long time since Rush was a "club" band, but this felt like their attempt to capture intimacy at such a large venue. My eyes darted from screen to screen, trying to take in every nuance. This larger-than-life welcome was a warm one. What followed may have been one of the most memorable sets that I have ever seen Rush execute.
There were many approaches that the band could have taken on this tour. Their previous R30 tour was explicitly intended to encapsulate the high points of Rush's incomprehensibly long career. For the fans, it was almost perfect. Even if there was a feeling of "I wish they would have played
" there was an equal feeling of "I can't believe they played
" For this tour, they could have essentially played same set. Dropping a few songs from this set to add some material from Snakes & Arrows would have done little to diminish the enthusiasm of the audience.
As a quick aside for the impressive audence, the heat did little dissuade the fans. The Smirnoff/Starplex Amphitheatre was packed in a way that I rarely see in the many times that I have been there. My boy Dave corroborates this assessment: this 20,000 person venue was totally packed in spite of the heat. Dave and I saw Hispanic-Americans playing air guitar with seemingly middle-aged white men and their children. In trying to influence their children with good musical experiences while they are still available, they opened up an unexpected intercultural space. We also took secret bets on the possible ratios of women/men and willing significant others/unwilling significant others: absolutely fascinating.
Back to point: the set from the "R30" tour was perfectly constructed to reach any fan that had ever had any passing interest in Rush at any point in their career. Conversely, the "Snakes and Arrows" setlist was fascinating for the well-seasoned Rush fan. About a third of the setlist consists of songs that you either "never thought you would hear them play" or that "they haven't played since (insert tour here)," and the changes in Rush's chops and live music in general made all of these tunes more impressive and rich than I could have imagined.
Among these were:
- Digital Man The original version of this tune has a notable "swing-y" feel in certain parts, and Neil's recent work on his jazz chops have noticeably changed the way that this song presents itself. Geddy also rearranged some of the old keyboard parts for bass. Overall, the tune seemed to be more organic analog, if you will.
- Circumstances When I heard that they were going to play this tune, I wondered how low they were going to tune so that Geddy could execute the vocals. Surprisingly, they played it in the original key and, with only a three-note change to the melody, Geddy absolutely nailed it.
- Entre Nous What? This is an amazing song that I genuinely never expected to see them play. However, it seems to fit within Rush's more recent trends towards songwriting. Perhaps this was a forward-looking harbinger of things to come.
- Mission This was always my favorite song from "Hold Your Fire," but the times that I have seen it live, the keyboard sounds have always seemed to have fallen flat. This was absolutely not the case on the "Snakes and Arrows" set. After they came out of the instrumental section, the dynamics and impact of the keyboard sounds finally caught up to my teenage vision of them. I had goosebumps.
- Between the Wheels Although they did this on "R30," it's a longtime favorite of mine that I am glad to see them revisit.
- Natural Science See above, only multiply to the factor of 12.
- Witch Hunt One of my unsung favorites from "Moving Pictures" that they have not played for many years, and a showcase for Neil. He played the cowbell part with his left foot, ripping out tom runs in the way that only he can. Terrifying pyrotechnics and blood-red lighting resulted in one of the disturbing atmospheres that Rush has created in many years.
For me, these tunes were worth the price of admission. However, even in tunes that I expected them to play, the quality of sound that Rush was producing blew me out of the water, moreso than in any previous encounter. Despite a few minute and passing mixing issues, the "Snakes & Arrows" set was probably the best SOUNDING Rush shows that I had ever seen. Maybe it had to do with the "tasty" sounds of Geddy's rotisserie amplification (replacing the "clean" sound of the Maytags), but for the first time, it seemed like the way that I always heard Rush in my head had finally matched up with reality.
Two classic performances get particular mention in this regard, the first of which was "Subdivisions." In my opinion, this tune stole the show. All of the sounds were great. The band executed it with breathless intensity, and the visual setup brought this interaction tangibly close to the audience. After several wide-mouthed minutes accompanied by intermittent air drumming that would make a Turret's sufferer stare, I could do little but holler like the sweaty fanboy that I accept myself to be.
The second was, surprisingly, "Tom Sawyer." As a longstanding Rush fan, this tune has become more fact than art to me. One time, as an experiment, l listened to this tune in my head with a timer, and I only came up a few seconds short of the actual time (4'33" John Cage would be proud). However, after listening to their rendition of the tune on the "Snakes and Arrows" tour, I have been constantly thinking about the first time I heard a couple of guys playing it in my high school band hall. In particular, the intensity and sound quality of Alex's solo was so dead-on for the original that it made me wonder how the band could still make such a connection on this tune after all these years.
Later, as we were leaving, I overheard a drunken guy saying to his friend "Dude, their new tunes SUCK!" Part of me wanted to turn around and poke him in the eye. With Rush, a band that constantly reinvents itself, it does not pay to just show up to the concert and expect to be impressed with new material. It takes a little bit of investment. The first time I listened to the album, I did not "get it," but it quickly revealed itself to me upon subsequent listens. This investment paid off at the concert. I wondered if these guys were open to appreciating the "new classics" from "Vapor Trails," like "Secret Touch" and "One Little Victory."
Despite this inward judgement, I was very happy to hear most of the crowd enthusiastically sing along with many of the songs from "Snakes and Arrows." Although "The Larger Bowl" surprisingly fell a little flat, "Far Cry," "Armor and Sword," and "Spindrift" sounded really great and got a rise out of the crowd. While "Far Cry" is the easy choice, after listening to the album for three months straight, I think that the gem on "Snakes and Arrows" is "The Way the Wind Blows." This song covers a lot of musical ground in a short form, much in the same way that the less subtle "Closer to the Heart" did many years ago. I would put it up there with some of Rush's greatest songs, and their live rendition of the tune did nothing but solidify this assessment.
Additionally, the instrumental songs from the new album were nothing short of incredible. The pure energy of "The Main Monkey Business" has kept me on the treadmill many a day, and this energy was realized on stage. The eye-popping ease with which the band executed "Malignant Narcissism" as a prelude to Neil's solo while bookending it with Lifeson's poignant "Hope" was also nothing short of brilliant programming.
Despite these accolades, I would like to remind the reader that at this point I, as a native Texan trying to repress the desire to play "air drums," was still soaked with sweat. I am not sure how hot it was at 11:00 last night, but no matter how hot I was, Geddy, Alex, and Neal were most assuredly hotter. Using fans that were doing nothing more than blowing hot air, the guys also had to deal with stage lights and pyrotechnics. At one point, a totally sweatless Geddy exclaimed "I'm not gonna complain about the heat, I know we're all hot here" (he's gotta have some kinda gene that discourages perspiration). However, the heat seemed to be taking its toll on the rest of the band. Alex, who is looking trimmer than he has in awhile, changed shirts three times, and undoubtedly was struggling with keeping his strings dry.
As the second set wore on, I became increasingly concerned about Neil. Around ten years ago, he biked across Africa. I know that he knows how to deal with adverse situations, but one can always stop on such a trip at any given time. The overheated concert professional is not allowed such self-directed privileges, and at one point the screens betrayed his pink-faced exhaustion. Despite his potential fatigue, Peart's drum solo was predictably brilliant, and it showed signs of fatigue only to the most dedicated listener. In particular, the portion that he played on his electric/auxiliary set was fresh and fascinating. Gone are the "Scars"-derived ethnic experimentations, now replaced by compelling industrial techno and ambient sounds. In the face of a very slight wavering in his usually impeccable time, I could hear that Neil was really exploring some new and highly contemporary ideas in this portion of his solo.
By the time they hit encore, it was obvious that the energy that they had exerted during the course of their heated (in several connotations of the word) performance was interfering with their usually flawless execution. Several of their triggers were not lining up as planned, causing periodic vocal and instrumental anomalies. Despite his incredible spontaneity, Lifeson was working as hard as Neal had been, and Geddy's seemingly inexhaustible vocal performance on "Circumstances" was not as equally realized on "A Passage to Bangkok," despite the humorously honest intent of the overhead visuals. It was here that I thought that I might see Neil collapse from the heat, but he continued his sonic intensity only slightly affected by the physical exhaustion that he must have felt.
As a fan in the audience on the verge of passing out myself by just standing there, I felt for him. Of all the guys on stage, Neil's job is the most physical. While my music-analytical mind was deconstructing his work, my heart went out to him. Despite all the flak that Peart has gotten for sequestering himself from the media, he is still willing to go on stage and really give it his all in an atmosphere that was probably as hospitable as Venus,' as are Geddy and Alex.
For all of us aliens on that weird planet called Texas, I would like to thank the guys for their sacrifice and hard work. I appreciate Rush coming here in the most inhospitable time and letting us know that they recognize us. Those of us that have incorporated their music into the soundtrack of our lives always appreciate the presentation of a new chapter. Just don't come in August next time, guys. Might I suggest January? I can guarantee it'll be at least 70 (21) around that time
The Main Monkey Business
The Larger Bowl
Between The Wheels
Workin' Them Angels
Armor And Sword
The Way The Wind Blows
Distant Early Warning
The Spirit Of Radio
One Little Victory
A Passage to Bangkok
Rush Official Website