May 24, 2011

Let the fray begin

'Yes are winding up the big machinery', he said. Back in late 1995, Steve Howe from Yes had been talking about his meeting with Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman and Alan White, and their new "all for one and one for all" rehearsals in San Luis Obispo. That culminated in the now-legendary SLO reformation gigs and the Keys to Ascension albums, and the rest is history. Around the same time, the boys in Primus had recorded only their fourth studio album, Tales from the Punchbowl, and were busy powering their way through MTV's Most Wanted (with VJ Ray "Peace...25g!" Cokes at the helm) and innumerable outdoor festivals. And the Rush machine had toured the slightly grungy sounding Counterparts album and, a year out of step, was getting set to record the long-awaited, modernistic Test For Echo for 1996.

Fast forwarding 15 years -- fifteen! -- Yes has been in the doldrums but perking up of late; Primus has disbanded and rebanded, mucked around, and is carrying on as usual; meanwhile the boys in Rush, ever the innovators, have built themselves a time machine and are taking it on tour.

It's been a long time coming, actually: four years, but it's a steam powered time machine so I suppose one must give them some leeway. In 2004 and 2007 I was down in Manchester with my friend Liz for their R30 and Snakes and Arrows concerts, and I wrote an account of the latter ("Workin' them angels"); at the start of this year my brother had managed to get tickets for the latest tour, of which I had somehow managed to hear absolutely nothing. Considering that Rush first came into my consciousness in about 1992, just after they had left the UK and finished up on the Roll the Bones tour, and with me wondering whether I would ever get to see them live, the third time in eight years was going to be pretty good going. There were rumours that the band had even recorded some new music but not a complete album, and was taking some of those songs on the road. The last time I thought that had happened was with a prototype of Subdivisions, back in 1981 or 1982, and the epic of Xanadu long before that. Keen not to spoil the surprise of new music or the new stageshow, I stayed well away from anything Rush-related. So it was with a happy, optimistic ignorance that I went with my brother and a friend to Newcastle Metro Radio Arena to catch Rush in full flow.

Most recently I'd been to the city virtually, via aerial photographs, to carry out some research on behalf of Newcastle Libraries about the former Forth Goods Station, which curiously enough I'd read about shortly before in From The Footplate: Elizabethan; before then it was only a flying visit, onboard The Cathedrals Express to Carlisle. I'd seen the green-roofed venue and its insalubrious surroundings from the train to London or York many times, but the last time I was in the city on my own two feet was when I visited my friend Charlotte. I think it was so long ago that The Mighty Boosh were still hot property. We had an easy, slightly GPS-assisted drive down and installed ourselves in the car park. Somewhat mysteriously there had been no barrier or ticket machines, and after asking the disinterested girl at the booking office and returning to the car to ask someone else more useful, the rotund security man who looked as though he had more important things to be secure about, like his folding chair, seemed to say 'Yawready part, duhwurry.' although through his thick regional accent it might equally have been his opinion on the latest cricket scores. I slung my bag around on my shoulder, and with the shrugging of shoulders we headed out of the venue and into town, in search of food.

Our wander underneath the dark girders of the railway and up the hill towards civilisation was made all the more creepy when we realised someone was following us, occasionally shouting things in our direction in a loud, penetrating voice. I chanced a look behind me: he was thin and walking with a stiff but purposeful stride, marching almost; we turned the corner and carried on in our supposedly nonchalant manner, but quickly crossed over the road. He followed. I turned around for a second time, slowed and stopped, and he strode past, his eyes fixed ahead like laser targeting beams. His bright pink gloves were a curious match for his anonymous grey trousers and hooded top. We followed him up to the station and watched as he made his determined way along. 'I will have order!' he cried out, arms stretched out wide, as he passed a surprised couple walking in the opposite direction. Perhaps he was an actor, publically rehearsing his lines and character with overt confidence.

We ate at a Pizza Express that had a strange look to it like a reinterpreted 1950s diner, with an angular windowed upstairs landing that looked out on the mall beyond and everyone eating below, as though it had dropped in from a Hollywood space invaders film. In fact, the place had all the hallmarks of Googie architecture. My pizza was large and thin with lashings of red onions and spinach, and at length I followed it up with a huge slice of tiramisu for energy. After all, there was a three-hour concert and a straight two-hour drive home still to come.

Back at the Arena with plenty of time in hand we scanned our way in through the entrance and took in the cavernous concrete underbelly of the seating tiers. I bought myself the latest tourbook, respendent in rivetted copper with delicate gearwheels inscribed with mysterious symbols; Rush, and Hugh Syme, are no strangers to implanting clues and puns on album covers or in the gatefold sleeves: a string of binary digits here, a fire hydrant there, a clock set to twelve minutes past nine, a collection of old television sets, a microphone stand made of Tinkertoy spools...; and to cement the Time Machine theme, an odometer-style counter reading 02011. Rush produces very nice merchandise, it must be said, and I would add it to my little collection dating back to the Permanent Waves tour of early 1979. After attending two previous concerts without the requisite tour t-shirt, I was tempted to buy one this time around, but the ticket had already cost me 65 Pounds, plus the tourbook. I'm a big fan of the band, but even I have my limits!

And with that we took ourselves inside, into the gloom. It was big, not the really big of Manchester, nor the pretty big and decidedly plush of the Edinburgh Playhouse or the fairly big and moderately plush of Newcastle City Hall, and the floor I noticed was concrete as smooth as glass. The curve of the wall hit the point home: this was actually an ice hockey arena, though the clacking of wood and fibreglass and the splashing of blood was about to be replaced by the metronomic pounding of drumsticks, and the splashing of beer. After inspecting the sound desk for a moment, all laptops and rows upon rows of buttons and sliders, we found our seats, at most a dozen rows from the stage on Geddy's side. This suited me fine, of course, with a clear view to his Roland Fantom X7, Moog Little Phatty and bass pedals, over to Neil's elaborate drumkit gleaming in copper and gold and red, and across to Alex's Art Deco guitar amplifers, in beautifully carved wood inlaid with Hughes & Kettner logos. Wood? Copper? And what were those great glass lenses behind Geddy's spot, looking like oversized traffic lights with trumpets coming out of the top?

Time Machine. And as Neil explained in his liner notes, it was the era of Steampunk, that romantic vision of the future as it ought to have been, when men wore hats and carried canes, a world at once eclectic and anachronistic. One might as well be describing the very music of Rush.

The show began with a new film showcasing the irreverent humour of the boys, and in process introduced them to the stage where they dived right into The Spirit of Radio, and the crowd joined in immediately, everyone on their feet. I fiddled around with my earplugs, trying to make sure I could hear the twiddly bass line without being swamped by the guitar chords as happened last time, satisfied myself with the result, and started singing along with everyone else. Standing next to me were two men, from Dublin, I learned later, who had seemingly come prepared with at least three pints inside them and whose enthusiasm was firing on all cylinders.

'Ruuuush!! F*** yeah!! Woooo!!' the one next to me yelled, more than once as the song ended. He turned to face me, his fist shaking. 'Ruuush!!'
'Oh come now, my good man, there's no need to shout so. You're making a spectacle. I love the boys just as much as you.'

Actually I didn't say that. 'Yeahh!!' was the best I could manage while still acclimatising to the Rules of Block A. The band went straight into, of all things, Time Stand Still, from their Hold Your Fire album of 1987. My voice wasn't as warmed up as Geddy's and I struggled a bit with the 'Freeze this moment a little bit longer' line, though I don't think anyone else noticed. Dublinman was too busy jumping around. There was a brief moment that shouldn't have been frozen any longer when a bass pedal note stuck on for too many beats, but they had their hands and feet full with that song. Another unexpected song was up next, Presto, from their 1989 album of the same name. It's not one of my favourite albums by a long shot, especially compared with the synth-happy Hold Your Fire, for its darker mix and generally dark subject matter, although I do like Show Don't Tell and Hand Over Fist.

A quick change of bass for a dropped-D tuning and Geddy introduced the next song: Stick. It. Out., lingering for a moment on the 'Ouuuut'. For this one the big screen played the swirling blue of the music video, which I remembered from the early days of The American Top Ten on ITV. That was a wonderful programme, in the days before the Internet, before YouTube and instant gratification of information searches; younger innocent days when all you had was the ITV Chart Show, Top of the Pops, and the Top 40 on Teletext. Goodness me, the younger generation have never had it so easy. TATT was a window into cool, unusual new music, made by people I'd never heard of, like De La Soul, Gary Hoey, Toni Braxton, Aerosmith, Donald Fagen, Soundgarden, Anthrax, a revitalised hip new Duran Duran... Of course, back then I'd been listening to a bit of Iron Maiden and pirated Guns N' Roses tapes, or Hans Wurman, or a whole lot of classical pieces, and I hadn't broadened my horizons much through NME or Kerrang. And then as 1994 came along, bringing with it the World Wide Web, suddenly everything started to become accessible and nothing was amazing anymore, and The American Top Ten dropped off the airwaves. Now, along with Richard Blade, it seems to have dropped off the face of the earth entirely. I fiddled again with my earplugs, pulled them out to see how loud it was and quickly pushed them back in, and fiddled again for good measure.

The show took a leap forwards to 2007 and Workin' Them Angels, from their brilliant Snakes and Arrows album, and the subsequent equally brilliant tour. Never was a song so well in tune with the rhythm of cycling and touring ('Carried away on a wave of music down a desert road...'), and the crowd was in full voice again. Melody was something that was mysteriously absent on the Vapor Trails album, although I think it was more out of experiment than a paucity of ideas, but they absolutely hit the jackpot on Snakes and Arrows. Damn that's a good album. And straight off the back of that came the steamy, flutey, off-kilter synth pad rhythm that signified the start of Leave That Thing Alone, the instrumental off Counterparts, from 1993. I made sure I had full view of Geddy's left hand, just to see how he played it: plucking every note or pulling-off for minimal effort as I tend to do. Counterparts also signified Neil's move to DW Drums which for a first go sounded robust but lacking in resonance, especially on record, but that was 18 years ago and now, several iterations later we had that tuned pow! sound of the Roll The Bones era that I enjoyed so much. The boys were on a roll and obviously having fun on stage, with Geddy going for broke for an extra couple of minutes at the end of the tune, just for the hell of it.

Then we were back to 2007 and Faithless, a slower-paced song with a lovely string part that's evocative of soaring, swooping Scottish melodies. 'And that's faith enough for me...' chorused the entire audience.

Bringing the show right up to date was a brand new song, [I Was] Brought Up To Believe, although Neil -- so critical of society in the early days of the Internet and instant communication -- had gone so far as to textualise it as BU2B! Dublinman, sporting a spoof Rush t-shirt, had already learned the song off by heart and belted out the words while the tall girl beside him tried her best to catch a riff and a phrase. Who knew that Rush could sound so heavy? We all thought that Counterparts was a departure from the complicated melodic sensibilities, but ... wow! Some songs instantly connect in my brain, like Motorhead's I Don't Believe A Word and Merri-May Gill's Hello, although I think this one needs a few more listens first. Even most of Test For Echo took time to grow on me.

Freewill was up next, one of the crowd-pleasers for its ludicrously high vocal line (c/o vintage Geddy Lee) and the no holds barred middle section where the guitar, bass and drums each goes off at a tangent in very fast three-four time. I used to wonder if the band was trying to copyright its music by making it as difficult as possible to play, though that hasn't stopped legions of tribute acts, and me, from taking it by the scruff of the neck and working through the runs. From the long hair of 1979's Permanent Waves album we slid forwards just six years to the time of sports jackets with the sleeves rolled up, white t-shirts with bold angular prints, and stacks of synthesisers with floppy disk drives and keypads. 'Ping, ping, ping' tinkled the Fantom for the introduction to Marathon. Now that's a song that's fun to perform, with its urgent staccato bass line through the verses and the monstrous pedal sounds and lush pads of the chorus. It all rushed by in about four minutes flat. I'm fairly sure Dublinman and I were singing at the tops of our voices again.

And three years back in time we went for the closing piece of Part One: the awesome Subdivisions. All heads turned towards the centre of the stage to watch Neil -- the master -- letting his arms and legs adopt entirely different rhythms on bass drum, hi-hat, ride cymbal and snare, all combining seamlessly every other bar for two beats before going off again. The video screen replayed segments from the original video, all vacant-looking anonymous housing developments and anonymous lives, while Alex and Geddy alternated with the shrill melodies on guitar and Moog. 'Be cool, or be cast out!' At that precise moment there were about 3003 amazingly cool people in one place and at least three of them singing.

For the next half an hour the house lights were on and people disappeared to buy beer, t-shirts and probably more beer. I watched as one man came back to his seat wearing two t-shirts, removed the topmost one, casually removed the second and pulled on the other again. Several pairs of eyes swivelled in their sockets to observe that fine male specimen. It at least took my attention away for a moment from Dublinman and his partner in crime who were having a loud animated conversation with the two men sitting in front of me, while I attempted to read my tourbook in peace. My brother came back soon after, with a pint of beer, which I tried. Kinda nice, kinda bitter for my tastes, I thought, and with that I had another glass of ye olde Edinbvrgh waterre. The video screen had changed to a big odometer clock, slowly counting up from about 01975. I quickly realised what would happen when it reached 01981.

The lights quickly dimmed right down and a roar came up from the crowd. The clock had only reached 01980, and I suddenly second-guessed myself. Me, a Rush fan who knows the release dates of every album; who knows which is the longest: The Fountain of Lamneth, 2112, or Hemispheres; who knows the running time to the second of Power Windows? I was sure about it! But then, maybe not, for the show was about to begin. And this was the raison d'ĂȘtre for everyone in the Arena: a chance to hear the legendary Moving Pictures album played in its entirety, from start to finish. So no surprises then that the first song was Tom Sawyer. I took a moment to look around the crowd to spot all the air drummers for the play-every-single-drum fill. Having gone for broke during Freewill you couldn't blame Geddy for taking it a little easier on the vocal duties, and they quickly segued into Red Barchetta, introduced with an amusing little film with toy cars. I don't remember very much about the performance of the song, as my brain was too busy thinking about the next one, the titanically tricky instrumental, YYZ. With the guitar and bass doubling each other, the crowd doubled both of them with seemingly every single fan joining in. The little bass and drum solos were flawless as ever. Without pausing for breath they went straight into Limelight, with Alex taking the reins this time with a superbly chunky guitar sound. 'All the world's indeed a stage, and we are merely players...'

The the big one, the one that rarely gets an airing at any concert: The Camera Eye, and at last a rhythm as offbeat as it sounds to sing 'An an-gu-lar mass-of-New Yorkers' -- five-four, or ten-eight, depending on how you define it. Ten minutes went by with lyrics about America and London, and I couldn't help myself with one of the more famously mis-heard lines, 'but the city is calm and there's fire in the sea.' By now the crowd was nearly climbing the walls with excitement. 'Ruuush!! Woooo! Yeaahhh!!', and my left ear was attacked again.

The slow, unnerving, Part III of "Fear" of Witch Hunt came next, with Neil alternating between normal and electronic drums and Geddy teasing out spine tingling chords on the Moog. Many times I prefer the polished studio versions of songs, whether by Rush or anyone else, except possibly Level 42 whose studio cuts always sounded desperately sterile, but Witch Hunt, having made it onto both the Grace Under Pressure tour video (VHS and DVD!) and, in full-on Simmons drumpads mode, the live album A Show of Hands -- both time machines in their own way now --, is a song that comes across beautifully in either environment.

And so to Vital Signs, the intelligent comparison of humans and electronics, with that memorable synth sequence introducing the verses, and then played repeatedly on the bass while Alex played slashing guitar chords all around it. A few more minutes and the long "outro" took us all the way through the album, and the crowd went completely mad.

The second new song from the future album, Clockwork Angels -- a concept album, no less! -- was called Caravan. I especially enjoyed hearing that familiar stop-time feel peculiar to so many other Rush songs: some 'intentionally herky-jerky', as a youthful Geddy once described it, others a calculated but effortless vacillation between four and five and seven. My counterpart knew the song off by heart already, and the new album is looking like it'll be a monster. Vapor Trails was easy to top; Snakes and Arrows less so. Alex and Geddy disappeared off stage, leaving Neil to perform his latest edition of his solo piece, Love 4 Sale, for drums and percussion. It was technically brilliant, mixing African influences with Big Band, but sounded less composed than his previous works such as The Rhythm Method and O Baterista. After about ten minutes of non-stop action, Neil ran off stage for a breather and Alex came on to perform a lovely short tune on his twelve-string acoustic. The audience was appreciative and absolutely silent.

Back as a trio, they fired into their long-time concert stalwart, Closer to the Heart, 'a little Spanish song'. No sooner had they finished it than the ethereal swooshing of an ARP 2600 (sampled and MIDI triggered now, of course) started up, for the beginning of their seminal album, 2112. Suddenly I wondered whether, after treating the audience to an entire album already, whether they might roll out the whole twenty minutes of Side One, but they cut it, probably sensibly, to the stageshow version of Part I: Overture and Part II: Temples of Syrinx. Legions of fans punched holes in the air at the appropriate moments. At once point a wise man with a long beard, dressed in a white silk robe and carrying a staff, wandered onto the stage and fiddled with the Time Machine, its spinning horn speeding up and its lights pulsing faster. Just after, someone in a chicken suit appeared stage right, alongside someone dressed as a gorilla, while Geddy wailed over the top about taking control of everything.

Rush wrapped up the concert with the first song from Snakes and Arrows, introduced with the oh-so-typical offbeat pounding of toms and chords, and a tune you can hum to your heart's content. Far Cry is one of Rush's best moments of the last twenty years. I remember the sneak preview they made available online before the album was launched. It was only the very first part of the introduction -- the offbeat bit -- but it caught every diehard fan's attention with that final magic chord: the Hemispheres chord!

Of course, every concert has to have an encore nowadays, and within a minute the boys were back on stage for a final workout, a chance to goof around and generally impress the hell out of everyone. What we heard was something sounding like a fairground ride, with tuba and tinkly Glockenspiel and Hammond organ in a playful polka, and after a few bars Neil gradually morphed his drum beat into the more familiar frenzy that was La Villa Strangiato: ten minutes of solid instrumental. And finally, they continued the confusion with a slow reggae tune that was reminiscent of Walking on the Moon by The Police, with that bum-babah bum-babah rhythm, Alex playing choppy chords on the last beat, Geddy a slightly funky, slightly sinuous, wiry sounding bass line. What the heck? Only the words eventually gave it away: it was a completely screwed up arrangement of one of their earliest songs, Working Man. They fooled around with it for at least a verse before switching back into their proper manner of playing, Geddy's voice hitting the high notes with aplomb and Alex absolutely on fire for his extended solo spot a bit later. They topped it all off with a few bars of Cygnus X-1, just for fun.

'Thank you very much ... Goodnight!' Well, thank you, chaps. As they scampered off the stage to the tourbuses, the video screen played a lengthy scene of two rabid fans with All Access passes having the worst -- and the best -- encounter of their lives with their heroes. Some of the audience had also scampered to catch trains and beat the 11pm traffic perhaps, but most of us stayed resolutely in our seats, the entirety of the stalls still standing, three hours in. That's the sort of attention Rush generates, 37 years on from the hairy chested, moustachioed bravado of their early twenties.

If they visit the UK again, say in another four or five years, I'll be there.

1 comment:

scott said...

Dang--I wish I'd been there for that. I've never had the chance to see them live.