YYZ to NYC: Rush Travels Backward Down The Number Line At Back-to-Back NJ and NYC Shows On R40 Tour

Photos from the Madison Square Garden show provided by Joe Catterino

Recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Rush has been at it for 41 years now since their 1974 self-titled release. Well, 41+ years including their earlier years playing local bars, high school dances, and their first 45 with A/B side singles in 1973. Their recent shows at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ and at Madison Square Garden in NYC as part of the R40 40th anniversary tour made a statement about the band who has persevered and grown a profound loyal fan base through the years while never flying close the mainstream limelight.

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Though the Saturday show in Newark saw a windy deluge going to and from the arena, Monday’s sunny evening drew like moths a sea of people clad in Rush shirts to the sidewalks at 34th and 7th. A typical scene before a concert perhaps, though something was different in the air about this crowd. It was something more genuine than simply a visitation to nostalgia for long-time fans while anticipation welled in younger fans queuing up with tickets in hand.

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Rush’s pair of New York area shows – June 27 at the Prudential Center and June 29 at Madison Square Garden – was a special treat on the R40 40th anniversary tour for many, making it easy to catch the band twice in the span of a weekend. It was an even greater special treat for these two shows, which brought an unexpected surprise in the first set.

R40 was all about a few key things which set this tour apart from some of the band’s recent tours – the set list, the fans, and at parting a feeling of mystery about what is next for Rush. It should also be called out that Rush devised a deft plot for the show – yes, plot – which keys in with the set list to bring things full circle.

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Rush’s show format has been consistent for a while as they have not had an opening act in years: two full sets and an encore consisting of a mix-and-match of songs from various albums favoring the latest album. That did not change this time around but cue the first clever device – the set list. It started with their most recent works from Clockwork Angels (2012) and progressed backward through their releases without skipping back-and-forth in time. Rush has so far employed a rotation of set lists on this tour and not played from one list repeatedly, which made attending both NJ and NYC shows in a span of three days special.

Anyone familiar with Rush’s live act knows they have a boisterous sense of humor, from their intro videos and projections to the stage setup (when Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson began using direct inputs, they’d put other props in place of their amps, such as clothes dryers and chicken rotisseries). A newcomer to a live Rush performance may have been perplexed by what was happening in the backdrop but seasoned fans quickly caught on to the ensuing cavalcade of guys in Rush jumpsuits milling about to rearrange the stage in bits and pieces. Remember the plot we mentioned earlier? As the show went on the setup devolved in tandem with the timeline of the songs, starting with the steampunk props to the dryers, a wall of amps, a stack of amps and finally, in line with the band’s earliest shows, one amp each for Geddy and Alex propped on a chair. Neil Peart’s kit setup followed this progression too, at least as much as it practically could with his modern rotating platform kit appearing in the first set and a fixed double-kick kit reminiscent of the 2112 era taking center stage in the second set. Pay close attention as the insignia on the kick drum head in the first set is Peart’s subtle nod to the great jazz drummer Buddy Rich.

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As Rush is not touring in support of any new music it felt like there was a synergy between the fans and the band – the loyal fan base making their presence known in gratitude for the years of music and the band feeding back to them a stellar performance, showing their gratitude for the support as well. While the aesthetics of the show certainly brought memories of listing to “2112” while procrastinating on some high school English assignment front and center for many long-time fans, it was the genuine loyalty that runs both ways that kept the energy high. Although, it seemed as though it took a few songs for the audience to really warmed up to that sustained energy perhaps due to less familiarity with their newer material.

Rush is well-known for their prowess as a trio for the sound they produce which they lived up to at these shows. Now in their early 60’s, the band members might be feeling a need to take it easy but Neil’s drumming was consistent as ever, Alex’s guitar lines executed with precision, and Geddy’s crunchy bass sound did its job. Geddy’s vocal performance seemed better this time than in a few of the recent tours, being able to cleanly hit the sustained high notes first evidenced early on during “Headlong Flight.” The band even did well emulating their stage mannerisms and recreating their sound from the beginning years while playing their earliest songs in the encore, namely by Geddy’s enthusiastic introductions his fellow band mates and the songs and minimal guitar effects. There were only a few infrequent blemishes on notes throughout the two nights which did not tarnish the performances.

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My first Rush concert was at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) on the R30 tour in 2004 as I was getting ready for my senior year of high school in Upstate NY. In all the Rush shows I have experienced on each of their tours in the eleven years since that first show there has never been as large of a crowd of kids (high school and younger) at a Rush concert than there was at the Prudential Center and MSG. It possibly is a side-effect of life-long fans bringing their kids to the show but it was incredible to see 9 out of 10 of them excited about the show – before, during, and after. As one long-time Rush fan Debra Ross points out, Rush is the ideal band for a younger music fan to get wrapped around.

Aside from mixing up the set lists between shows, something really pulled the heartstrings of fans when Geddy paused between songs to remarking “We’d like to deviate from the norm right now…” and broke out “Losing It” which has been played live for the first time ever during this tour, debuting in Toronto June 19 with the Prudential Center and MSG shows marking the second and third performance of the song. Even more rare, Rush brought a guest on stage, NJ local Jonathan Dinklage who played violin on tour with Rush as part of the Clockwork Angels String Ensemble in 2012/2013. Dinklage delivered a jaw-dropping performance on the song making it one of the most talked about parts of the show afterward. This was perhaps the most revered moment by many, including David C. who remarked it was a dream come true after 32 years of wishing to hear it live. Several other moments throughout the show made it special for many, including the longer songs of the second set – “2112,” “Cygnus X-1” and “Xanadu” where Geddy and Alex donned double-neck guitars. A consistent part of recent tour sets and a sort of rallying song for Rush fans, “Subdivisions,” yet again rang back at the stage with some of the loudest applause with the song’s opening notes.

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While both nights were excellent for the music and sound quality, the MSG show felt like it was a notch above. The recently renovated arena felt more comfortable and cozy, perhaps a little bit less disconnected due to the oval-shaped bowl seating versus a more square setup. While NJ doesn’t have to pump their own gas, our pizza is better, you might say (and get the joke if you were at both shows). To call both of these shows a trip through nostalgia could be construed as a slight to what Rush is and represents. There is a strong resonance about the music and lyrics that keeps the shows fresh and relevant each time around especially with a growing fan base of younger folks.

So, is this it for Rush? Various articles and interviews point in the direction of this being the last major tour for the band but not the end. Hype-talk over the show grew into brooding as the Metro North train lurked out of Grand Central, almost an academic discussion over their future given Geddy’s closing remarks about hoping to see everyone down the road and the change of the projection of “R40” to “R40+” at the end of the show and some sentiment within the band about not touring anymore. That leaves one question as the R40 tour enters its second half: How do you say farewell to a band who’s music is the soundtrack to your life? Well, let’s hope to not have to think about that one just yet. Rush on!

Setlist: (differences between the Prudential Center and MSG shows noted by asterisk)

Set 1: The Anarchist, Headlong Flight, Far Cry, The Main Monkey Business, How It Is*/One Little Victory**, Animate, Roll The Bones, Between The Wheels*/Distant Early Warning**, Losing It (with Jonathan Dinklage), Subdivisions

Set 2: Tom Sawyer, The Camera Eye*/Red Barchetta**, The Spirit of Radio, Jacob’s Ladder, Cygnus X-1 Book Two: Hemispheres – Prelude, Cygnus X-1 Book One – The Voyage: Part 1, Drum Solo, Cygnus X-1 Book One – The Voyage: Part 3, Closer To The Heart, Xanadu, 2112 Overture/The Temples of Syrinx/Presentation/Grand Finale

Encore: Lakeside Park, Anthem, What You’re Doing, Working Man

*Played at the Prudential Center only
**Played at Madison Square Garden only