Full disclosure: I was never a huge Rush fan back in high school.
Mind you, it’s not as if I didn’t appreciate their music — I’d be one of the first to crank “Tom Sawyer” or “The Spirit of Radio” when it made one of its many appearances on my favorite radio station.
But to fully appreciate their elaborate, complex body of work was to make an emotional and intellectual investment that, personally, I wasn’t quite willing to take on.
Back in the day, I and my close circle of friends opted for the easier, more carefree easy rock, some Southern ballads that allowed us to be free as a bird, and new wave tunes — falling in love with my best friend’s girl, hitching a ride to Rockaway Beach, a young teacher who is a school girl’s fantasy.
On the other side, my other, much smarter friends — the ones who aced calculus, advanced chemistry and regularly graced the Dean’s List — made no secret of their admiration for the Canadian band that somehow cranked more sound and meaning out of just three men than I could fully comprehend. Then and now.
There was me, and then there was Rush, searching for the lost Xanadu and taking listeners on a heart-pumping tour through the temples of Syrinx.
Oh, what I missed.
While some other bands have recently taken fans on a leisurely stroll on their farewell tours, Rush embarked on a three-hour journey that spanned all their 40 years and took the appreciative sold-out crowd of 14,827 Sunday night at Amalie Arena in Tampa — many of whom proudly sported faded Rush T-shirts from many concerts ago — on a fun, sometimes quirky, but thoroughly powerful ear-ringing performance.
The R40 Tour celebrates masterful drummer Neil Peart’s 1974 union with lead singer/bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, and the mates are marking the milestone by highlighting their extensive catalogue in reverse chronological order.
After a highly entertaining cartoon video introduction, featuring caricatures of the band members as they drove in a car and navigated through their historic careers, they opened with three songs off their 2012 album “Clockwork Angels” — “The Anarchist,” “Clockwork Angels” and “Headlong Flight,” a showcase for Peart’s expert drum work.
There was little evidence, if at all, that the 40 years have caused the band members to slow down.
Lee’s distinctive voice was on full display throughout the night, hitting those signature high notes with precision, and Peart and Lifeson once again showed why their legions of fans — many of whom reached middle age long ago — remain faithful to their favorite prog-rockers to this day.
As if the music, spectacular light show and occasional pyro weren’t entertaining enough, the show had its playful side. Set-hands in red jump suits helped transform the stage especially throughout the first set, adding speakers before later taking them away, periodically installing washing machines next to a large popcorn machine, and placing small plastic dinosaurs on the speakers as the band launched into “Subdivisions.”
At times, eyes also were fixed on the large video screens as much as on the band. A Godzilla-like flying dragon breathed fire during “One Little Victory” before real flames shot up from the back of stage, and old television with a boy flying down on a small rocket ship (think “Dr. Strangelove”) ushered in “Distant Early Warning.”
That lead-in also featured some guest appearances. Actors Jason Segal, Paul Rudd, Peter Dinklage, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and the stars of the Canadian comedy “Trailer Park Boys” performed some faux rap during “Roll The Bones,” drawing some laughs leading into “Distant Early Warning.”
The first set ended with the more mainstream 1982 “Subdivisions,” complete with video of kids in high school halls and shopping malls, and Lee telling the appreciative crowd that “we’re going to take a short break for some medication, but we’ll be right back.”
They came back with a vengeance. After some more self-deprecating humor on video (Lee as a pirate? Lifeson and Peart in bed, sharing a nightmare story?), the band launched into the wildly popular “Tom Sawyer,” “YYZ” and “The Spirit of Radio,” before settling in to their prog-rock staples.
“Xanadu” featured Lee and Lifeson rocking double-necked guitars, and the 2112 foursome — including “The Temples of Syrinx” — showed how these guys can still jam with the best.
The encore was introduced by comedian Eugene Levy in 1970s garb, introducing the band on video a la Ed Sullivan, but not nearly as serious. “Three guys do not a rock band make,” he said before suggesting a horn section might help their cause.
From there, it was a trip into the wayback machine and hits off their early work, including “Lakeside Park” and the inspired “Working Man.” All were performed with speakers atop wooden chairs and a high school gym as a backdrop — essentially the setting for most any mid-70s teen’s senior dance.
Lee has hinted in the past that this could be the band’s final tour, though he teased that “maybe one day we’ll see you again.” If it is, they’re going out on a note as wonderfully and distinctively high as Lee’s unmistakable voice.