Toss Monty Python, John Dos Passos and the "Fragile"-era lineup of Yes into a blender. Mix vigorously.
Add a dollop of synth-pop, some '60s power-trio rumblings and a few cups of technical virtuosity. You've just created Rush, the smartest and most doggedly determined-to-progress band in heavy rock. Humorous, literate and given to instrumental dexterity, the band is truly like no other.
For nearly 35 years, the Canadian trio -- bassist/vocalist/keyboardist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart -- has been putting the "progress" in progressive rock, moving rather rapidly from the ambitious, if slightly Zeppelin-derivative nature of its earliest work, into the genre-bending grandiosity of late '70s platters like "Hemispheres" and "A Farewell To Kings," through the smart idiomatic hybrids of its mid-period, beginning with "Permanent Waves," and proceeding into the prog-pop of "Power Windows" and "Hold Your Fire" -- through all of this, Rush has remained a band apart. It doesn't so much buck musical trends as ignore them. This has meant an always apparent freshness in songwriting, recording and performance. It has also meant that the musical establishment has no idea where to "put" the band.
Rush fans, however, have never had such a problem, and on a soggy Fourth of July evening, thousands of them opened their hearts to the group's singular sound and stunning audiovisual presentation across the span of a twin-set, three-hour show at the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center. Much of the evening circled around material from the band's latest effort, "Snakes & Arrows," which ranks among Rush's finest studio records. A sprawling set of tunes, the record at once encapsulates the band's musical history and shows a way forward -- which is inspiring, when you consider how many musical peaks the three have already scaled. In fact, the evening's second set kicked off with five straight from "Snakes & Arrows," and this 20 minutes made plain just what it is that separates Rush from so many bands of its era -- the new material didn't just sit comfortably next to the many "classics" sprinkled throughout the set, it often eclipsed those classics.
After an amusing film introduction, the group kicked off the evening with "Limelight," the most incisive lyric yet penned concerning the often alienating nature of fame, and the just as often artificial relationships it can instigate.
Lifeson wasted no time nailing the lyrical guitar solo that so gracefully sets up the song's emotional apex. This would not be the last time on Wednesday that he'd claim the spotlight with his idiosyncratically beautiful solos. Two surprises for the Rush faithful quickly followed, in the rarely played "Digital Man," a stirring blend of rock power, new wave eclecticism and muscular reggae, and "Entre Nous," a pathos-drenched plea for acceptance that again featured some stellar chordal work from the perennially underrated Lifeson.
"The Main Monkey Business," a brain-frying instrumental from "Snakes & Arrows," was given a gutsy workout, the Lee-Peart rhythm section charting a daring course, atop which Lifeson layered his textural guitar figures. "The Larger Bowl," another new tune, showed the trio's ability to write hook-heavy pop-laced songs, even if they are pop of a unique variety.
"Circumstances," a body-slamming "Hemispheres" track, turned some heads in the audience -- I believe the tune has not been played live since the late '70s. (Lifeson was great here -- again!) Set 2 hit a midpoint crescendo with "The Way the Wind Blows," one of Peart's finest lyrics -- one that deals evenhandedly with the often destructive impulse toward religious faith in man -- and an indelible Lee melody on which to hang that lyric. The blood lust of the ignorant, angry mob that inspired "Witch Hunt" 25 years ago still exists, so this rarely played tune hit a raw nerve. That it was impeccably performed didn't hurt.
Getting into Rush is a rite of passage for any budding rock musician, so it was not surprising to see plenty of teens and 20-somethings in attendance. The music they heard Wednesday evening should have captured their imaginations. It is redolent of a time when musical ambition, passion and a commitment to excellence were not anomalous in rock.
The ferocity with which the music was performed insisted that such a time is still now.
Wednesday night at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center.