Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Rush at the Garden: Why couldn’t they have been more like Liberace?

liberace1I went to see Rush at the Garden last night. It was good, but it wasn’t sublime.

Here’s the thing. I’ve liked Rush since I was a kid and in fact still listen to their music with an, for some, alarming frequency (my favorite album being Fly by Night). However, I never really explored their catalog, which I otherwise celebrate, beyond Moving Pictures, the mega-hit which sold over 4 million copies worldwide and put them on the classic rock map for good.

If I think of things from the standpoint of Geddy, Alex, and Neil, I realize that for them, Rush is everything they have done since they started playing together in something like 1968. In fact, early on in the show Geddy Lee joked that they had “400 songs” that they could play for us.

Unfortunately, for many of my generation—I recently turned 47—Rush actually boils down to the 4 or 5 songs (“Tom Sawyer,” “Limelight,” etc.) that we’ve heard a thousand times and, if you are a semi-fan like me, choice cuts from the preceding albums (“Xanadu” from A Farewell to Kings or “The Necromancer” from Caress of Steel). Aside from “Subdivisions” off Signals, I couldn’t really name a Rush song recorded after 1980.

It was for this reason, and a couple others, that the first lengthy set Rush played was a bit of the hard slog. Kicking things off with a very corny, though highly produced, film clip that set up the “time machine” theme of the evening, the band launched into one of their biggest hits, “Spirit of the Radio,” and it was exhilarating. When you hear a band play a song that has been kicking around your ears for thirty years it is undeniably powerful and I was, for about 4 minutes and 50 seconds, transported.

I’ll interject at this juncture that when Rush took the stage, everyone stood up (and, to their credit, the Garden was admirably filled). I stood up as well but didn’t realize that people would remain standing for the duration of the concert. I just couldn’t do it. First of all, I’m really tall and I get self-conscious when I know that I’m blocking people’s view of the stage so I kind of slouch to decrease my height and then my back starts hurting. Secondly, I’ve had bad knees since I was a kid and they just don’t take well to extended standing around. In any event, the ensuing physical discomfort definitely colored my enjoyment of the ensuing performance.

The beginning was auspicious but then Rush proceeded to play music for 45 minutes that was utterly unfamiliar to me and, based on the fact that few were singing along or expressing any real enthusiasm for each subsequent number, most of my comrades-in-audience. I sat down.

Did the music suck? Was it poorly played? No. These guys are pros and, to a greater or lesser extent, musician’s musicians. Truth be told, once I realized that they weren’t going to play the stuff I’d come to hear, I was able to get into it. I dig their peculiar brand of spacey hard rock and while I had never heard, and will probably never hear again, the songs played, I tended to like them.

They threw in a couple chestnuts towards the end of the set (“Free Will” and the aforementioned “Subdivisions,” a plaintive Jeremiad against the stultifying and spirit-crushing pressures of suburban life) and then took a break.

The main draw of the night was the band’s promise to play Moving Pictures in its entirety, which they did after the break and that awesomely. These songs are strong and the album is fairly tight (aside from the lengthy prog workout, “Camera Eye”). After they had played side one, I turned to my companion and said, “Those four songs were worth the price of admission.” They really were.

Of course, when they concluded side two, with the quirky and likable “Vital Signs,” Geddy said, “And now we’d like to play something from our new album.” We left.

Earlier in the day I heard a story about the closing of the Liberace museum in Las Vegas (I know, I know… nothing lasts forever). Driving home from the concert, I thought about the contrasting approaches to show biz represented by Liberace, on the one hand, and Rush on the other. Liberace was about entertainment. As he put it, “I don’t give my audience a performance. I give them a show.”

In contrast, Rush is about being true to yourself in spite of the pressure to only do what people want or expect. While conceding that, to get paid, you have to entertain people to a degree, Rush made the presentation of their artistic vision, not pandering to the purchasers of their platinum albums, the focus of the evening. They are performing artists, after all, and not, like Liberace, entertainers (though, frankly, you can’t get to Rush’s level without having something of the “song and dance man” in you).

Certainly, I was disappointed that Rush didn’t play more of their “old stuff,” but I was not surprised. Their music, especially hits like “Limelight” and “Spirit of Radio,” have always emphasized the need for honesty and integrity if one is not going to lose oneself in the “universal dream/for those who wish to seem.” Rush stay true to themselves and maintain their integrity, their “authenticity,” by playing what they want, not what I want.

And when we are young and forming our identities, this sort of heroism (“I’m going to do it my way”) is very appealing and in fact explains the enduring popularity of Rush.

However, when we’re older and these sorts of formative battles are behind us, we care less and less about such posturing. When it comes to choosing our diversions, in most cases, we don’t want a performance, we want a show.

So when we go to see Rush, at this late date, we actually want us some Liberace.

Category: Music

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3 Responses

  1. barry gordy had your number, matt. back in the sixties, he’d throw together “revues” – three or four motown acts. each one would trot out, play a hit or two, along with a song he wanted to be a hit, then on to the next. there was no pretense of artistic vision – the kids just wanted to dance.

    oldies revues were a variation on the theme, accommodating groups who hadn’t had a hit in a while. oldies shows also introduced the concept of amputee rock. sometimes you got the whole band, but often it was just one or two members who put put down the bong long enough to get the rights to the name. the result? you got a cover band with maybe the bass player from the original. they might be good or even great in their own right (I’m pointing at you, chris squire), but it wasn’t like seeing the originals…

    time and karma aged the boomers and the rock show. the dead and stones figured it out early – they did tribute shows for decades. their new shit, however, was good too, so they never had a crowd of kids (or in your case, wicked tall old dudes) standing in the crowd yelling “play the hit!” what most of them need is to swallow a little pride and team up. the revue still works. play the hits, cash the check. a lot of them do – benatar and loverboy. styx and whatever other midwestern dinosaurs feel like playing out.

    what I prefer is the guys who never get famous enough to be caught in that box. robyn hitchcock can reinvent himself every time he comes to town, and I’ll still be in the front row. sure, he’ll play some chestnuts at the encore, but it’s just frosting, not the whole cake. they don’t forget the kids still want to dance, even if they’re not kids anymore.

  2. admin says:

    I can always count on you for thoughtful comments, Todd, and thanks for this one.

    I think there’s a difference between bands that one might go to see on a whim in a fit of hit-driven nostalgia (Rush, in this case) and artists like Robin Hitchcock with whom one develops a long-term relationship and who, rightly or mostly wrongly, never had a hit. (Hot Tuna is a band like that for me.)

    The funny thing is that Rush kind of falls in between these alternatives. In retrospect, I see them as an idiosyncratic band with a hardcore following who more or less accidentally had a string of hits 30 years ago. For people like me who just didn’t follow their career after that point (but actually knows there work before that fairly well) a hit-light show is a bummer. For the real fans, it’s what they’ve become accustomed to over years of ongoing engagement with the band.

    The thing with the Dead, and I’m a Deadhead “from the word ‘drop,” as someone once put it, is that they didn’t have a hit (“Touch of Grey”) until they had been together for almost 20 years. So, while there were always those folks at the shows (this is back in the 80s) who came to hear “Trucking” or “Sugar Magnolia” (which more often then not they would hear), most of the folks at the shows mainly knew the Dead from shows (or tapes thereof). Given that, one might be disappointed by a particular night’s performance, but probably wouldn’t be disappointed by the fact that they were playing a bunch of stuff you’d never heard before.

    And the thing with the Stones is: they are Liberace!

  3. Jay says:

    Thanks, Matt, for this review. I wonder how much of Rush’s concept of personal integrity and authenticity is colored by their study of Ayn Rand, who said “No society can be of value to man’s life if the price is the surrender of his right to a rational, productive and independent life.” In any case, it sounds like this concert would have definitively crashed my expecations and that I would have felt like the only sober person at the party. But, then again, I am speaking as one who only has 4 songs from Rush’s first self-entitled album and “Caress of Steel” (the pinnacle, IMO) on his iPod, and who already considered “Moving Pictures” too commercial for his likings. Problem with old hits is that, by the time you are in your 50s and on your second or third reunion tour, you have played them a few thousand times. Not that this should be a problem if one has sufficient breaks between, but isn’t playing “something from our new album” all about 1.) revenue and 2.) the myth of continual creativity and value? Business interests and artistic narcissism get satisfied at the same time here. Puts me in a frame of mind where I actually think that the reunion tours that just focus on the old hits with no new studio album are more authentic than Rush. Give me a Pixies or a DLR Van Halen reunion (with no new album) over a Rush or a Kiss one with.