The rule of thumb for old bands arriving with new albums is basically: play three or four of those songs (we'll pretend we're interested) and then get back to the hits.
Kudos to Rush for riding into Consol Energy Center on Tuesday and boldly making the new "Clockwork Angels" its dazzling showpiece.
Because casual Rush fans are few and far between, the Canadian prog-rock band first took the unorthodox approach of loading an opening set with deep cuts it hadn't played in years.
There was a method to the madness as the songs touched on themes that have become even more relevant here in the 21st century: "The Big Money" about greed and commercialism, "Force Ten" with its imagery of dangerous storms, "Territories" about the terrors of nationalism, and "The Analog Kid," a driving rocker about a dying breed. The majestic "Bravado" was dedicated "especially, on this inauspicious date [9-11], for those who are gone."
The songs were all played with cool precision by the power trio of bassist/singer Geddy Lee, who at 59 can still soar to the rafters and rock a pair of tight jeans and Converse sneakers; Alex Lifeson, a versatile, unsung guitar hero who can take over a show in an instant; and the legendary Neil Peart, who is still a stone-faced beast on the biggest kit in rock.
They each had ample room on a steampunk-themed stage surreally decorated with an ancient-looking flying machine, Victrola, brain specimen and, best of all, a working popcorn machine.
Mr. Lee noted, "This place is like home to us. I think we've played Pittsburgh more than any other American city. Our first gig [in the States] was at the Civic Arena. Let's see if we can outlast this one here, too."
After an intermission and a video starring Jay Baruchel as an uptight auditor and the Rush guys as hilarious gnomes, Mr. Lee -- wearing a T-shirt of his drummer's graduation photo! -- came out and begged our "indulgence" to play some new stuff, introducing a stand-up, headbanging nine-piece string ensemble led by David Campbell.
If the first set was a little on the mechanical side, the second one was full of fire, literally and sonically. As the singer repeated "I can't help thinking big" like a mantra on "Caravan," it was like the stage suddenly came alive for the nine "Clockwork Angels" songs.
Not only were there fireworks, steam, pyro and gorgeous fantasy videos on moving screens, the music intensified with the strings replacing Mr. Lee's synths and Mr. Lifeson launching nearly every song with a crunchy, distorted riff. "Clockwork Angels" is Rush in hard rock, muscular mode with songs such as "The Anarchist" and "Headlong Flight" and the lush, atmospheric "The Garden" and "The Wreckers." Rush didn't push the narrative of the concept album, but it didn't matter, as the songs on the new album, one of their strongest, stood on their own.
Those who came to hear the "hits" finally got them about two hours in when Rush burned through the prog instrumental "YYZ," a reggae-inflected "Working Man" and a first encore of "Tom Sawyer." At that point, you figure the guys have tired fingers and just want to go home. That's when they ultimately torched the place with three parts of the epic "2112," one of their most elaborate and demanding pieces.
It was a pure Rush geek's paradise and a testament to a band whose chops only get better as it stubbornly refuses to go quietly into nostalgia.music
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg. First Published September 13, 2012 4:00 AM