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November 25, 2014

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Rush time machine: If you get it, that’s cool … if not, that’s also cool

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Scott Harrison/Retna/www.harrisonphotos.com

Rush performs at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Aug. 14, 2010.

Well, another Rush show has torn through the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and you know what this means: A lengthy spell of unbroken Rush music. It might be a week, maybe a month, but it will be intense and constant and without pause until my brain finally hits Tilt.

A head full of Rush. It prompts some curious rejoinders during conversation. Someone might say to you, “We’re finally getting some rain,” and you answer, “Acid rain! Red alert! … Red alert!”

They call this tour “Time Machine,” after an upcoming CD release. It’s a slightly backward tour, certainly by design, as bands typically tour in support of a new release after the music hits the market. But not these guys. It’s a pre-emptive tour, an-out-of-sequence exercise seemingly pulled from “Inception.”

But even absent the new CD, the title is apt. The members of this great band from Canada play with as much youthful exuberance as ever, even as they rock into their late-50s (Geddy Lee is 57, Alex Lifeson turns that age this month and Neil Peart turns 58 next month). But aside from a few creases in their faces (no Botox for these boys) and some added girth to the midriffs of Lifeson and Peart, they seem ageless. Even decades ago, the men in Rush did not seem boyish. They were somehow always wizened, smart, dignified.

Suffice to say there was never a “teen idol” phase for Rush. The band did go through a confounding silken-Japanese attire phase, long ago, which fans were only happy to let play out. Mullets and Peart’s handlebar mustache have come and gone. Synthesizers, smoke machines, double-neck guitars, electric drums -- all of surfaced and either vanished or found a proper place in Rush’s repertoire. Their quirky humor has become more prominent their live act; Lee wore a concert T-shirt reading “RASH” for the first half of the show, acknowledging the sensation some non-Rush believers experience.

Saturday night the band was backed by a big and beautiful video screen showing old photos and footage of the band’s history, which dates to 1974 if you’re tracking its studio history and 1968 if you reach back even further. Set onstage amid the amps and Peart’s drum set were silver appliances, to replicate either washing machines or time machines or a fusion of both (washing machines have been used as stage effects in Rush shows over the past several years after a reviewer said watching their stage act was about as interesting as watching clothing tumble in a washing machine).

But this was not at all a dampened experience. It was simply a fired-up, explosive, powerful performance. Fans picked up on the spirit in the intricacies of the music. Example: Lifeson’s guitar work on the circuitous instrumental “YYZ” was just crunching. You can always count on Peart to blow your eardrums out, but during Saturday’s show he kept tossing his drumsticks airborne, more than customary, catching them at the very moment it was time to bash the cymbals (these are moments Rush fans notice and relish, but which non-fans find totally incidental). Lee can still capture the high notes – the vocals coming out of Lifeson’s blazing solo in “Freewill” are among the more amazing you’ll experience in a live show. There were a couple of left-turn forays during such relics as “Closer To the Heart” and “Working Man” that might not have please orthodox Rush fans, but the band delighted in the jarring shifts in style.

You could tell, because they were smiling.

This was a show so exhaustive that it required no opening but did require a 20-minute intermission, which Lee owed to the age of the band (some of in the audience could have used some amyl sulfate by then, too). The performance was bracketed by two slickly produced videos, the first starring the band itself as a would-be polka outfit and the second – which ended the show on a dull note, frankly – featuring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel reprising their “I Love You Man” bromance shtick.

“Moving Pictures” was played end-to-end. It’s the band’s most successful album, and if Rush fans were polled it would likely win as the band’s top-rated album (“Permanent Waves” gets the nod here, though). Thus, we were treated to such live rarities as “Camera Eye” and “Witch Hunt” as the video screen showed such images as a giant eyeball and a graphically produced little witch trudging above the stage.

But so strong was this concert that “Moving Pictures” is dropped in, post-intermission, and you’re expecting the band to continue forward on its time machine – let’s hear, “Signals,” while we’re at it, eh?

I always feel leaving a Rush show that I’ve seen them at their best – and I have seen them 11 times now, in such venues as the Cow Palace in San Francisco; the Oakland Coliseum Arena; Lawlor Events Center in Reno; Arco Arena and Cal Expo Amphitheater in Sacramento; and the Thomas & Mack Center, Mandalay Bay Events center and the MGM Grand Garden Arena here in Las Vegas. Maybe it’s that the appreciation factor is so high these days, because fans know that any tour might be the last for Rush, but Saturday’s audience was probably the most grateful and responsive I’ve experienced at a Rush show. The “R30” anniversary show at the Grand Garden Arena, marking the band’s 30th anniversary, was particularly wild.

But those at Saturday’s show seemed gleeful just to see the band clamber onstage and take their positions. Several times, fans behind me shouted, “Thank you!” and an audience of 10,000 mostly not-young fans stood and rocked throughout.

As customary, the audience was mostly guys. This was the type of crowd where someone could pass gas and hardly anyone would care. I mean, who are we trying to impress? Rush shows are the is the only rock concerts I've been to where the line to the men's room is longer -- by quite a lot -- than the line to the women's. We were actually being mocked by the small-yet-vocal female bathroom contingent during intermission.

Yes, we're older, too. No escaping that reality of the Time Machine. Our hair might be shot through with gray now, and some are showing more forehead than they did during the “Moving Pictures” tour, but so what? I love that Lifeson’s own bald spot has expanded to the point that he looks like Friar Tuck with a Fender. A friend noted to me that Peart is beginning to resemble Tom Hanks, which is right. And as the years pass, Lee is looking a lot like a magic wizard, or maybe a lost character in “Alice in Wonderland.”

It’s crazy. Over the years I have been lucky – blessed, really – to see some great entertainment, in Las Vegas and elsewhere. It’s happened in stadiums, arenas, showrooms, lounges and – from sleight-of-hand artists – face-to-face. And I still come back to Rush, a band I latched onto the moment I heard the opening of “2112.” You either get Rush instantly, right now, or not at all.

I remember, many years ago, Lee telling an interviewer that Rush was not a “message” band. That might be true from where he stands, but for those of us beyond the lighted stage, there is a message there: Find a groove and stay in it. Pick a plane and own it. It’s cool to be uncool.

And if you don’t get it, that’s cool, too. We’ll just keep rockin’, happily spinning in our Time Machine.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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