#R40TUL: A Retrospective
BOK Center, Tulsa, OK
May 8, 2015
Story and photos by Kelly D
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What can you say about a band that deeply, profoundly changed the entire course of your life forever? I’m about to find out. Join me as I reflect back on the R40 Live Tour, where I went to see a total of 24 concerts out of 35 overall. This is the first part in a series where I will be writing a narrative of my observations about my personal highlights of the tour.
Emotions ran high at the BOK Center in Tulsa, OK. Prog rock icons Rush kicked off their final, long-term tour there- but did we truly know that at the time? On one hand, those of us who were there were all dizzy with the excitement that only a brand spankin’ new Rush tour could bring. On the other, we HAD to know- either consciously or not- that this was the beginning of the end. And it was that kind of melancholy that seeps into your very soul and clings on for dear life. It grew, slowly, as the tour went on till the final show in Los Angeles, when (spoiler alert?) Neil came out from behind his safety net of drums, crossed what he dubbed “the backline meridian,” and waved goodbye to the crowd with his two bandmates for the first time ever. If that’s not the most perfect symbolic gesture, I don’t know what is.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself here. Let’s go back to winter 2014-2015, where rumors of an upcoming 40th anniversary tour flew over the internet via fan sites and Facebook groups. Ticketmaster even listed a show in Boston (reviewed by fellow contributor Phil Simon here: http://livemusicnewsandreview.com/r40/) for June 23rd, 2015 till it was hastily removed.
I was skeptical. I had been privy to some confidential information that made me think the three guys from Toronto would need some more time before they headed back out on the road. However, in January 2015, I woke up to a gleeful text from my best friend and fellow fan Amanda telling me tour dates had been listed on Rush’s official website. I remember looking at my phone at 5 AM in my hallway and reading “MAY 8 – TULSA, OK.” I gaped at my mother, who I had converted into a fan a few years ago, and said, “Well, guess I’m going to Oklahoma!”
The next few months were a blur of attempts to buy tickets via pre-sale, fits of rage at computer screens when said attempts were futile, conversations about who was going to what shows, commiserating about the cost of tickets and airfare, setlist speculation, submitting personal fan photos for some mysterious reason via Rush.com, and planning what ended up becoming my 3 1/2 -week journey from Kansas City to Los Angeles, hitting a dozen cities in between. I had been carefully saving my money since the end of the Clockwork Angels Tour in July 2013 so I felt well-prepared to embark on the trip of a lifetime.
While I’m a purist, some fans enjoy knowing what they’re getting into- so when the tour book art for R40 dropped, with song titles listed on one of the images, people pounced. I averted my admittedly curious eyes as much as possible, and concentrated on getting my “concert outfit” ready. It was almost time.
While Rush never fails to deliver a feast for the senses, an opening night of their tour is truly a different beast. I’ve only been to two, but the thrill of a new setlist, background videos, musical equipment, et al. brought us in droves. Fans from all over the globe flew and drove into Tulsa. The prevailing emotion was joy, but at least in my brain, I couldn’t shake the malaise of the whole situation. I couldn’t help but feel this is it.
That thought didn’t reach my head till after Amanda (my traveling partner for much of the tour) and I woke up at the same time in our hotel room, looked at each other, and simultaneously leapt out of bed screaming, “It’s a fakkin’ show day!”
The pre-show get-togethers at the Aloft Hotel near the arena were bacchanals, with friends old and new uniting over our common theme: the love of Rush. Liquor flowed, joints were sparked and passed around, and everyone was smiling. This was the beginning of something big. The day was incredibly humid; the sky clouded over and threatened to empty onto us revelers on the patio.
I had gotten seats for the concert with another great friend, Erik, and Amanda joined us. We had our tickets scanned amidst the throngs of people flooding into the BOK Center, and I couldn’t help but feel almost nauseated with anticipation. When Amanda and I caught a glimpse of the stage, almost obscured by a gigantic screen bearing the R40 logo in massive script, we clung to each other as our knees buckled: this was real. It was finally happening. That’s when we decided a shot of tequila would calm our nerves.
Full audio of the show here courtesy of TapeHead2 and Betsy Sommer:
On the floor of the arena, the merriment continued with fans congregating for embraces and selfies in front of the huge screen. I noted that the “house music” (a playlist of classic prog rock tunes assembled by Neil’s security guard Michael) had remained the same since the Time Machine Tour in 2010-2011. This was also about the moment when the eyelash glue I had used to affix my false eyelashes hadn’t dried properly in the Tulsa humidity and seeped onto both my contact lenses. I was essentially blind, with T-15 minutes to showtime. I tried not to panic, then remembered I had a small bottle of eye drops in my purse because I am nothing if not prepared. With no time (or eyesight) to run to a bathroom, I had to remove my contacts then and there on the floor of the arena, clean them using the eye drops, and put them back in. But it worked. I could see again. Deep breaths, Kelly. It all worked out.
Minutes later, the lights went down and immediately damn near everyone started screaming. I burst into tears. The tears continued throughout the opening video projected on the large screen, “The World Is, The World Is.” A veritable present from the guys in the band to their fans in itself, the animated sequence takes us from the humble beginnings of the band playing high school gigs in Willowdale, ON, to jumping onstage (off a wheelchair, motorcycle, and camel) with at least a hundred inside jokes and gags from their storied career crammed into less than three minutes of screentime. The screen rolled up, and there was Rush.
It was dark, the only stage lights varying shades of blue. The guys were in silhouette: Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee gliding to their positions stage right and left and Neil tucked away behind his kit. A second later, they began to play the eerie, ethereal beginning of “Clockwork Angels.” It was the only time they ever opened a R40 Live show with that particular tune, and reflecting back on it now, it perfectly seemed to signify that this show was the beginning of Rush’s 35-concert long swan song. They moved through the song with trademark ease and grace, but I couldn’t shake an uncanny feeling watching them until Amanda nudged me and shouted into my ear, “The stage setup is the same as last time.”
Of course! The orbs behind Alex and Geddy’s keyboard rig were the same as the previous tour’s. After a few more songs from Clockwork Angels, some of their roadies appeared onstage and slowly began breaking down the pieces and replacing them with stacks of amps and ersatz washing machines. Then it dawned on me, as Rush moved onto another song from 2007’s Snakes & Arrows, “The Main Monkey Business.” I grabbed Erik and Amanda’s shoulders and shrieked, “They’re going back in time!” The realization hit them too, and we all whooped and then craned our necks eagerly towards the stage.
I felt like they played it safe, as it were, with the first half of the setlist. There wasn’t anything they hadn’t played in the last few tours, which was a slight disappointment. However, I was pleased to hear Counterparts’ “Animate” live for the first time ever, as I had based my concert outfit aesthetic off its lyric “goddess in my garden” with a hunch that they would reintroduce it this time around. The in-between visuals, where fan photos taken by photographer John Arrowsmith were stitched together and modified to include Rush album covers and promo photos, made me squeal with delight as I saw my friends Meghan, Farid, Kim, and Heather flash. (I didn’t find out till later that a photo of me had made it onto the same collage, on one of the side screens, which was an extremely pleasant surprise.) “Roll the Bones” was a similar delight, with many of Rush’s famous friends helping out on the big screen lip-synching its notorious rap.
After an intermission where some of us caught our breath and upgraded our seats, the second half began. Outtakes from previous tours’ videos showed on the big screen that had been lowered once more. The breakneck pace of the clips, coupled with bursts of bawdy language, kept us in stitches- and then the show resumed. The guys performed several live-in-concert mainstays from Moving Pictures and Permanent Waves, including “The Spirit of Radio” where more fan collages flashed onscreen: at one point, the camera literally flies through my good friend (and fellow LMNR contributor) Stacey’s open mouth into a swirling array of Rush fan pictures taken through the years. We also noted that Neil’s drum kit had been changed to a stripped-down version of his past behemoths, dubbed “El Darko,” confirming rumors we had heard in the past months.
Geddy Lee then introduced a next track from Permanent Waves, claiming they had never performed it live. Erik, Amanda, new friend Eric, and I all squinted at each other. Were they going to play “Different Strings”? No, it turned out to be “Jacob’s Ladder.” This seemed a particularly grievous error as in fact it had been a touchstone track off their popular live album Exit. . . Stage Left! The crowd went wild regardless- and the hits kept coming. The notes of the two-album-spanning suite “Cygnus X-1,” played in opposite order, rang throughout the stadium. No one could handle it: I am fully convinced Eric is the guy Ged talks about in the Rolling Stone interview, published a month later, discussing this show:
“I thought his head was gonna pop off and roll away. He couldn’t fucking contain himself! I thought he was gonna have a heart attack.”
As he was grabbing Amanda and me by the neck and squeezing ever tighter when the doubleneck guitars came out for “Xanadu,” this description fits the bill. We were agape. The majesty of the scene, with the backdrop of the background screen now resembling the ornate inside of a theater like Hammersmith Odeon, cannot be overstated. Soft waves of dry ice and lasers completed the scene, as Alex and Geddy stood side by side hoisting their instruments in a sweeping, languid jam session. Four parts of the 20-minute long epic “2112” rounded out the set. What could possibly come next?!
Eugene Levy, that’s what. Dressed as his SCTV character Rockin’ Mel Slirrup, his presence on the big screen was instantly legendary. Throughout the rest of the tour, “Wow! Wa-ow! That was a little bit of too much!” became a recurring phrase as we left venues, shocked and awed. Rockin’ Mel introduced us to an “opening act” that would keep us “boppin’ and groovin’” even though “three guys do not a rock band make.” The curtain rose yet again, and now Rush was back to their roots: the background image was a high school gym, complete with a glittery disco ball lowered from the eaves. Geddy had even changed his signature spectacles to round John Lennon-esque frames and sported a paisley bass that matched Alex’s guitar. The song? None other than “Lakeside Park,” a deep cut from 1975’s Caress of Steel. A song about nostalgia and reflecting on one’s youth, it seemed all too natural for them to perform on this tour. Unfortunately, their version in 2015 truncated and shifted to Fly by Night’s “Anthem,” leaving out the priceless line “Though it’s just a memory, some memories last forever.” Maybe they figured they’d leave it to our imaginations.
The next song to surprise us, “What You’re Doing,” came from Rush’s self-titled debut. As the stagehands stripped down the stage to just two single amps perched on authentic desk chairs from the 1970s, the guys tore through the tune raucously despite not having played it live in 38 years. I was out of my mind, deliriously happy at this point. I knew “Working Man,” the song that broke them into the mainstream, had to finish off the night- and it did, but not before a snippet of their unreleased track “Garden Road” snuck in at the very end as the closing riff. And very tellingly, Geddy departed after saying, “We hope to see you again sometime,” omitting the piece “down the road” that he had used in previous years. Well, fuck.
The final video, beginning with an absolutely heartbreaking montage of Rush saying goodbye over the previous decades, also became instantly classic: a live version of the puppet king from A Farewell to Kings prevents Rush from entering their own dressing room, which is host to all the figures on their album art hellbent on destroying it. Hilarious! And it borne the line “Fuck you, puppet!” which I learned the next day had been ad-libbed by Big Al himself.
Shaking, I left the arena and stepped into the remnants of a large thunderstorm. Symbolically, it was all too pure: the humidity of the day mixed with the anticipation during the pre-party turned into a tempest of emotions and forces of nature. And when it was all over, we were left to deal with the aftermath.
However, while thunderstorms in Oklahoma are an inevitability, Rush performing live again is not.
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