Forty years on, Rush blazes fresh trails

By the time the members of Rush launched into their 1982 classic “Subdivisions” midway through their
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SARATOGA — By the time the members of Rush launched into their 1982 classic “Subdivisions” midway through their second set on Saturday at SPAC, they had already won the audience over. But the song should be mentioned as the high point in an evening made up almost entirely of high points.

Ladies and gentlemen, this was Rush in all its glory. So yes, it was bombastic; yes, it was overblown; yes, the lighting and backscreens could temporarily send you into an epileptic seizure if you looked at them for too long. But the sheer power, energy and skill that was put into the group’s performance at SPAC, their second year in a row at the venue, was something to be admired and envied by countless lesser bands touring the world today.

“Limelight,” off 1981’s classic “Moving Pictures,” got things off to a strong start. Although bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee suffered a few minor vocal flubs during the first few numbers, giving them a more deranged quality that worked at times, he quickly warmed up and by the third song in, “Ghost of a Chance,” was in fine form.

Alex Lifeson’s guitar squawked, squealed and screamed with satisfying punch during the extended instrumental bits, and especially in his earth-rattling solo on “Freewill.” The guitarist also chimed in wonderfully on gentler songs such as “The Trees” and instrumental “The Main Monkey Business,” off 2007’s “Snakes and Arrows,” during which Lifeson alternated between an acoustic steel-string and his Gibson Les Paul.

SPAC’s large screens showed close-ups of each band member alternated with animation and video meant to enhance each song (footage of real and imaginary apes during “The Main Monkey Business” being the most obvious). At its peak, both lighting and animations came together to propel the trio’s performances into the stratosphere, especially on “Dreamline,” which closed out the first set with a spectacularly awesome green laser beam show, and on second set opener “Far Cry.”

The group mixed it up quite a bit, performing songs from all over their career but focusing on “Snakes and Arrows” and classic albums from the band’s peak 1970s and 1980s era. The mix worked, in part because Rush’s sound has not really changed; they’ve been working the power trio, hard/progressive rock songs for nearly four decades. By far the strongest song in this first set was “Red Barchetta,” off “Moving Pictures,” showcasing one of the band’s heaviest grooves.

The group’s second set began with a long stretch of “Snakes and Arrows” tunes. While veteran bands pulling out new material can often signal the time for a bathroom/beer break, not so with Rush. The new songs feature some of the heaviest riffs of the band’s career thus far, even though they fell short of matching up with the intensity of classics such as “2112” and “The Spirit of Radio,” played later in the second set.

Lee took the prize for most energetic man onstage, running back and forth and slapping at his bass with glee and abandon. But he was duly matched by the legendary Neil Peart, pounding away at the skins from on top of his throne, an image enhanced by his huge, rotating “Snakes and Arrows” themed kit. A solo toward the end of the second set more than proved his status as one of rock’s most skilled percussionists.

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