looking for a few good ideas

  amongst the irregular verbiage

Rush, Vapor Trails Tour

We parked in the parking building, and took the escalators down to the walkway and past a winding tunnel of shops, up another escalator and round a corner, and suddenly we were in the vast marble lobby of the largest hotel in the world.

(Some background on the MGM Grand: It's got over 5000 rooms. If you've ever seen panorama views of the Las Vegas "Strip" (i.e. the opening credit sequence of CSI), then be informed that the MGM Grand is the huge green one.  It's basically a small city in its own right. Factoid: Of the 20 largest hotels in the world, 17 of them are in Vegas, 16 of them on the 'Strip. What a crazy place.)

The lobby made me think of roller-skating dancers in big frilly dresses. I do not know why, maybe it was somthing about all that white marble. Once we'd crossed the lobby, we entered the casino part of the building. I think the entire ground floor of the huge cross-shaped building is taken up by casino paraphernalia and restaurants. We wandered around for a while, hugging the walls and looking at menus. We finally decided that a place called Grand Wok looked good, reasonably priced, interesting pan-Asian menu, and best of all, it was separated from the casino floor by a glass wall.

Once we sat down in the non-smoking area, we discovered that the glass wall possibly kept the noise from the kitchen *in* rather than the noise of the casino *out*. Hey, I guess that's as intimate as it gets in a casino...

Dinner was very nice. Excellent won-ton soup. We would eat there again, should we ever have another reason to be in the MGM Grand. (That's the thing, you gotta have a reason to be there in the first place, I'd never seek it out just for the experience.)

After dinner we wandered around the "Studio Boulevard" area which was fortunately a slot machine free area. Instead, it hosted more shops and restaurants, including important places like Starbucks and Sunglasses Hut, and restrooms hidden behind a facade labelled "Municipal Power And Waterworks".

We made our way past the shops and through the gates into the Grand Garden Arena. It was quite a transition, from the finery and glitter of the shopping area, to the industrial concrete of the arena periphery. I had a flashback of the Oakland Coliseum in 1994, queuing for our seats to see Pink Floyd on the Division Bell tour....

I had bought the tickets online and therefore although I knew the seat layout, I had figured that our seats were ok, but not special. We were located about four tiers up, the lower part of the raised U-shaped seating , in one corner, with the stage at the other end. Basically we'd have to turn our heads 20 degrees to our left in order to be looking directly at the stage.

Surprisingly, these turned out to be excellent seats. I don't know if I can describe it correctly, but because we were sitting just after the point where the raised seating starts its curve around the back of the arena, we could look across the top of a reduced number of seats - Lisa could see most of the stage even when she was sitting down and everyone else was standing up!

We were sitting next to a 12-year old boy who was at his first concert with his parents. His Dad lent us their programme so that we could read the blurb and look at the pictures. (We hadn't bothered to get a programme, only $15 but still...)

Some background for those of you not intimately familiar with the band Rush: They're Canadian, proponents of what I call "intelligent rock" that intersects with both progressive rock and heavy metal audiences. Their last tour was 5 years ago. They didn't actually split up, but went into an apparent permanent hiatus after their drummer Neal Peart suffer a couple of personal tragedies and retired from the music business to "rediscover his purpose in life" or something like that. This year, though, the band got back together and recorded a new album, "Vapor Trails". Now, I didn't actually like their last effort ("Test For Echo") much, but I bought a copy of the new long-awaited album just like all the other hard-core fans. Well, I don't think that much of "Vapor Trails" much either. (Suggested one-word review: "Reeks.") But that really doesn't matter, because Rush are known for putting on great performances that showcase selected tracks from various albums released throughout their 30-year career, and this show was sure to include a bunch of personal all-time favorites, many that have musically influenced me over the years.

And they did not disappoint. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

While we were waiting for 8:00pm to arrive, we amused ourselves by checking out the stage. On guitarist Alex Lifeson's side, we have a big stack of amps and speakers. In the middle, Neil Peart's impressive sparkly red drum kit on a riser. On the right behind Geddy Lee's mike and keyboard stand, are.... three large white clothes dryers, individually miked.

Now, as far as I know, you can't play an amplified bass guitar through a clothes dryer. But it sure looked as though that's what they were going to do. My guess is that Geddy's bass amp was hidden off stage, or more likely, just behind the appliances. I'm sure that Geddy was making some kind of point about how much hardware Alex needs to cart around for his guitar amplification...

(I theorised that, in fact, these machines were the three "pods" that Rush would emerge from, a la "Spinal Tap".)

I looked around the 17,000 seat arena. I'd say there were a bit less than 10,000 people there. The pre-show taped music I think was from a local radio station, playing 'Floyd's "Welcome To the Machine" and Yes' "South Side of the Sky" among other, less identifiable music.

At 7:53, the front stage lights went out. The crowd initially roared its appreciation, but then the sound dies away, as nothing else happens. Then, at about 7:56, the clothes dryers kicked into action, three strange portholes glowing as red and white laundry spins and flops about in each of the machines. Again, the crowd stirred expectantly.

Lisa and I put in our earplugs.

At 8:00 precisely, the "Three Stooges" theme tune played, whilst behind the stage, a huge projection screen displayed a classic poster of the three stooges, with the faces of Geddy, Neil, and Alex "photoshopped" into place, each with its own label underneath: "Ged", "Neil", "Brad Pitt". Rush walked onto the stage as the whole arena roared with excitement, then the stage lights flared and Rush launched into "Tom Sawyer". (If you know the music, you'll know what I mean when I say it has a certain... impact.) It was pretty loud.

First the bad news: the sound quality could have been better. I don't think this was Rush's fault. The Grand Garden Arena is a big and boomy venue, and the sound guys probably did their best. Our earplugs cut down on the dangerous high frequencies and made the music volume enjoyable but it was a very bassy and muddied mix. Neil's low tom-tom drums made the whole place reverberate.

Fanboy warning: I'm going to do a song-by-song run-down, so if you're not interested in the details, you might like to skip ahead. A quick summary: They played two sets *and* an encore, and they were mostly brilliant. The effects and lighting were FANTASTIC. This was the best gosh darn arena show I've ever seen, and the only other one was Pink Floyd in '94 so that's either saying a lot or very little. I'm not sure which.

During "Tom Sawyer" we found out that there were three large video screens: two square ones on either side, and a large rectangular one hanging up behind the band. The side ones were usually showing close-up shots, and the center one sometimes duplicated the middle section of the side screens, or was showing various song-specific animations.

The next song was a mystery until I identified the swirly burbling sound effect: "Distant Early Warning" from _Grace_Under_Pressure_.

Then, straight into "New World Man" from _Signals_.

Without letting up, we were treated to the title track from the _Roll_The_Bones_ album, complete with skeleton animations and pre-recorded rap voice over in the middle section.

I think Geddy said Hi at this point, and introduced the next number, "EarthShine" from _Vapor_Trails_. Eh, it's just noise really. But after the suberb opening numbers, I was not complaining.

The stacatto tinkle of a triangle introduced the powerful instrumental "YYZ" played note perfect and complete - no sequed medley or interspliced drum solo thank goodness.

Next, Geddy introduced a song close to Rush's heart, "The Pass" from _Presto_. The corresponding video played on the big screen during this number.

"Bravado" was next. Not one of my favorites, I had to look up which album it's from: _Roll_The_Bones_. They did an OK rendition, I guess.

Kapow! The opening chords of "The Big Money" from _Power_Windows_, one of my favorites and one I was NOT expecting to hear. Hooray! A "Matrix" style video of numbers falling on a green screen accompanied this one.

I have to say at this point it seemed the entire audience was into the music, singing along and everything. Cool!

Geddy announced the next one was a surprise they just added to the set last night: "The Trees" from _Hemispheres_. Excellent. Going back in time to '78 for that one.

I almost hoped they'd segue straight into "Xanadu" like they did on one of their live albums, but no: Still back in time, though, for "Free Will" from 1980's _Permanent_Waves_.

They finished up their first set with "Natural Science", from the same album, possibly one of my favorite Rush tracks ever. Animations of DNA or something going on on the projection screen.

Having played for 75 minutes - seemed longer - Rush took a 15 minute break. Lisa and I took out our earplugs. "I've already heard more of my favorite tracks than I could have hoped for," I told Lisa. Even if they played nothing but stuff from their last few albums in the second set, I'd still feel satisfied.

During the break, technicians were tweaking a big green laser, getting it set up correctly I guess. So far we'd had extremely cool lighting along with the video screens, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The lights slowly fade down, as a video of a sunrise, in real-time, plays on the three video screens. We hear frogs, birds, and things, as the sky slowly brightens on a sheltered lake between tall mountains. Something stirs in the distance - a lizard? Dinosaur? A puff of flame reveals it to be a number of dragons waking up (A brace of dragons? A grate of dragons? I dunno.) One of them stretches, looks left, then right, pulls out a cigar and lights it with a quick exhalation, and puffs away, reducing a theatrical and dramatic build-up to basic comedy. Hmm. Rush have come back to the stage, and as they launch into the opening chords of "One Little Victory" from their new album, giant flames shot up around the sides and behind the stage. Apparently the dragon had set the stage on fire!

OK, the song kind of sucks, but the animation was good - the dragon was flying around and occasionally he'd blow a fireball out of the screen and onto the side of the stage, which exploded in real flames obligingly. I bet Neil was feeling the heat.

"Driven" from their last album _Test_For_Echo_ was next. Too loud and noisy. Didn't like it, except for the bass solo section which was pretty cool. (Geddy Lee is my favorate bass player, after Chris Squire of Yes.) This was followed by "Ghost Rider" from _Vapor_Trails_. Basically white noise. Stupid animation too. "Secret Touch" was next. More of the same. (Sorry, I really can't stand _Vapor_Trails_. There's a lot wrong with it, and people are just so happy to have Rush back as a touring and recording unit, they can't find it in themselves to be critical, I guess.)

Fortunately for me, things got better. The green laser kicked in to life, criss-crossing the arena with a flickering network of beams along with the opening guitar appegios of "Dreamline" from _Roll_The_Bones_. My favorite track on the album. I love lasers. Cool.

The audience went absolutely berzerk over the line, "She's got a sister out in Vegas, the promise of a decent job..." Sometimes life is just fun.

I'm losing steam here. Let's see.... "Red Sector A", rocking. A sole representation from _Counterparts_: the instrumental "Leave That Thing Alone", rocked.  

Ah, the drum solo. A staple of Rush shows. Alex and Ged leave the stage while Neil shows us why he is the stick master. His drum kit would spin 180 degrees on demand, as Neil stood up, turned around on his stool, and face the audience again, this time seated at a different kit. It totally rocked, with four distinct sections, and he finished up by accompanying a pre-recorded big band swing number, playing the drum part. Totally cool.

Neil takes a break, and Alex and Ged pick up acoustic guitars for a very low key but beautiful acoustic rendiction of "Resist" from _Test_For_Echo_.

You can tell you're nearing the end when the opening swirly synths of the mega-opus "2112" from the album of the same name. Oh, man, the anticpation. The whole arena was ready for this. Da-dum! The "Overture" begins.

There's a section in the Overture where everyone stands up, yells and pumps their arm in time with the music. Kind of 1,2,3 - "Hey!" 1,2,3 - "Hey!" I know, it's a real rock-in-roll cliche. But these guys were pumping this stuff out in 1976. This isn't Cliche. This is the Real Deal. Nostalgia? Who cares, I'm turning the volume up to 11.

Geddy proves he still has vocal chords capable of belting out the tune of "The Temples of Syrinx" ultrasonically as 2112 conitinues.

Just in case we thought they were going to give us the full 21 minutes and 12 seconds of 2112, they stop, switch gears, and go straight into "Limelight" from _Moving_Pictures_. That's the *other* track I didn't dare hope to hear. Oh, Yeah!

Well, knock me out and call me a throw rug, we get ALL of the instrumental showpeice from _Hemispheres_, "La Villa Strangiato". Where do these guys get their energy? We're dying of pleasure here.

"Spirit of Radio" was the second set closer, everyone screaming at just the right point in the song, "The words of the prophets are written on the studio walls - Concert Halls!" (Crowd noise)

Of course, we demand - and get - an encore. Or three.

"By-Tor and the Snow Dog", "Cygnus X-1" (is Colin dead? Aparently he died of contentment.) and lastly, "Working Man" from their very first album, which I have never actually heard.

Before Rush left the stage for the last time that evening, they switched off the clothes dryers and pulled out some tour shirts, which they then flung into the audience.

OK, I give in! I'll probably see Rush again next tour.