Photo by Norman Sands

Touring behind their strongest album in years, Rush rolled into Chicago on September 15 with plenty of material to choose from and an almost sold out United Center ready to listen to whatever they were planning to pull out of their 40 year deep bag of tricks.

As the packed room darkened, the video screen lit up with a surreal Monty Pythonesque trip through a steam punk powered backstage setting. As the video ended and a large red clock started spinning, the synthesized pulse of 1981’s “Subdivisions” began. With its dreamy sound and wistful theme of battling conformity, “Subdivisions” was an appropriate way to begin a set built almost entirely of music from the 1980’s, an era driven less by the heavy guitar sound of the 70’s and more by keyboards and textured guitars. One constant through all phases however has been the masterful drumming and deep lyrics of Neil Peart. “Subdivisions” built to a climax with Geddy Lee stepping away from his keyboards to let loose on his bass and dance across the stage as Alex Lifeson tore into his first solo of the evening. With just a momentary break the screen was filled with images of cash as 1985’s reggae inflected Big Money began. This song saw Lee moving from playing bass guitar while triggering keyboard samples via foot pedal to dancing back to the keyboard before running across the stage to play with the equally animated Lifeson. A sample from Austin Powers brought Big Money to a close as Lee leaned into the pedal board at his feet to begin Force Ten as the trip through the 1980’s continued. The groove of Force Ten slowly built to a thunderous finale as Peart tore apart the end with a flourish. At this point Lee thanked the crowd and explained that they were going to be here awhile as they brought “way too many songs.” “Grand Designs” was the second of what would ultimately be four songs off Power Windows this evening. Set one continued to move through the 80’s, stepping back to the 30 year old Signals album for a raging “Analog Kid.” Neil Peart ripped into a solo during “Where’s My Thing” from Roll the Bones. This solo saw Peart sticking to a straightforward drum sound without any electronics and at about two minutes was relatively short leaving everyone to believe that there was more to come. They would not be disappointed as this was the first of three solos of the evening by the Professor. The set ended with a leap from the 80’s to 2007’s Snakes and Arrows with “Far Cry.”

The lights came up as the band left but the stage continued to pulse and smoke and the crowd was able to check out the detail of the stage props. The whole stage featured a steam punk theme with large copper boilers and tubes. Behind Lee stood; a tank with a giant brain floating in it, boxes topped with a variety of horns and inextricably, a large working popcorn machine. The beautiful lighting rig hung in many parts including 10 smaller floating screens. Behind Lee’s massive, 360 degree kit was a smaller stage.

Following a brief and amusing film featuring the members of Rush dressed as gnomes the lights came up illuminating an 8 piece string section. For the first time in Rush’s career they are touring with additional musicians. As Rush began performing tracks off their new album, Clockwork Angels, the organic sound of the strings stood in sharp contrast to the synthesized sounds of the first set. The eight songs were played with a sense of urgency and precision most bands could only hope to achieve. “Headlong Flight” was huge. “Halo Effect” began with Lifeson at the edge of the stage enveloped in fog as he played a beautiful guitar solo followed by perhaps the prettiest singing of Geddy Lee’s career. Another beautiful song was “The Garden” both musically and visually as the screens and stage were filled with flowers and a rainbow of lights. With its combination of almost metal riffs combined with some really beautiful playing, Rush have managed to release one of their most important records in decades.

The band moved onto older material with “Manhattan Project” pleasing those not familiar with the new album who were hoping for classic material. The strings stayed and added depth and urgency to yet another track off Power Windows. As the song ended Peart’s drum set spun and he moved into his second major drum solo of the evening called The Percussor, this time focusing on an electronic sound playing with electronic drums and manipulated cymbal sounds. The screen over his head aptly portrayed a robot playing the solo instead of a video of Neil himself. “Red Sector A” followed before the band lit into “YYZ.” With the strings added to Rush’s most famous instrumental track, this epic reached new heights whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Ending the set was “Spirit of the Radio” which left the crowd screaming for more. An encore of “Tom Sawyer” seemed appropriate but following that up with three parts of 1976’s “2112” was the gift that every fan of 70’s Rush had been waiting for. Ever the clowns, Rush had one more surprise up their sleeve. As the band powered through the Overture, a dancing Chicken and a dancing gorilla wearing Blackhawks jerseys came out on stage and were then bum rushed by 6 large members of the Blackhawks who proceeded to drag them off the stage. Never missing a beat and with a glint in their eye Rush played even harder closing out this three hour show with energy, passion and a sense of humor.