It’s standard for the legendary progressive rock trio Rush to tackle serious subjects in its songs, such as conformity, corporate greed, freedom, personal development and war. But to dedicate an entire concert to these themes seems downright depressing. However, with ferocious energy and a playful attitude, the message came across as surprisingly upbeat.

When Rush performs, it feels like bassist, lead vocalist and keyboardist Geddy Lee, drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, and guitarist Alex Lifeson are only getting better, and Sunday night’s show at Phoenix’s US Airways Center continued the trend.

With more than four decades of material to choose from, it can get dizzying looking at set lists. The band typically chooses around five newer songs to play during its shows, juxtaposed against roughly 20 classics, but Sunday had a decidedly different approach.

One noticeable change in Rush’s performance is that the band members weren’t alone on stage. Instead, eight violinists sat behind Peart’s drum set and provided a string ensemble for nearly every song. Rush has always astounded listeners by producing so much powerful music with only three people and the ensemble’s inclusion of violins only made the evening more remarkable.

Similar to its new album “Clockwork Angels,” the concert told a very overarching story by discussing our own correctable shortcomings as humans through a unique amalgamation of well-known classics, a few obscure songs and the nine tracks in “Clockwork Angels.”

The concert began with a surprising mid-80’s tone with the heavy-hitting synthesized “Subdivisions,” which smoothly transitioned into “The Big Money” and then “Force Ten.”

Though the studio-quality tones and lyrics are the same in these songs as they are performed live, they had a different appeal at the Phoenix show. It wasn’t that the songs had changed, it’s that the trio has loosened up from a stoic performance and seemed to actually have a lot more fun onstage, an attitude that lasted throughout the night.

Lifeson and Lee bounced around onstage, joking with each other while simultaneously hammering out ridiculously perfect riffs. Lee momentarily performed the horse maneuver from “Gangnam Style,” and Lifeson pretended to toke an imaginary joint during “Tom Sawyer.” The biggest shock was Peart, who actually cracked something close to a smile while performing drumstick tricks between his incomparable robotic precisions.

The crowd roared with approval after the first three songs and then things got interesting. Out of nowhere came the underappreciated “Grand Designs,” “Territories,” “Analog Kid,” “Bravado,” “Where’s My Thing” and “Far Cry.”

Although some of these songs are over 30 years old, the messages within them eerily resonate today and serve as a perfect preamble for the strongly thematic songs heard on “Clockwork Angels.”

“Grand Designs” talks about how there is “so much poison in power / The principles get left out,” and that we have “so much mind on the matter / The spirit gets forgotten about.”

“Territories” discusses how we “don’t feed the people / But we feed the machines” and “can’t really feel / What international means.”

“Bravado”’s soul-searching tones remind fans that “we will pay the price / But we will not count the cost.”

It is an unnerving reminder that mankind has made very little ethical progress over the last 30 years, but the vitriolic energy the trio puts into its songs and the light-hearted attitude and quirky background images makes the message sink in with hope instead of remorse.

Despite that the three men will all be senior citizens next year, they still gave an outstanding performance.

Lee’s unique tenor tone doesn’t go quite as high, and instead he settles for a mid-range sound, but his powerful bass and keyboard performance well make up for it.

Age doesn’t even seem to affect Lifeson, who is easily the most energetic, laughing and talking with audience members, and performing a beautiful acoustic piece during the introduction of “Halo Effect.”

Peart is slowing down a little bit, but he is still better than any other drummer around. Instead of his customary five minute drum solo, he opted for three shorter ones throughout the concert. His customary twirling and throwing of drumsticks was less frequent as well, but still present.

After finishing off an astounding play of “The Garden,” the group reminded concertgoers of what mankind is, and what it will become if it is not careful in songs such as, “Manhattan Project,” and “Red Sector A.”

Afterward they played the customary “YYZ,” and a hope-inducing “Spirit of Radio.”

The remarkable thing about this concert isn’t necessarily how obscenely well Lee, Lifeson and Peart performed, it’s how they established a new array of meaning in each older song by combining them against the concept of “Clockwork Angels.”

With encore songs of “Tom Sawyer” and “2012: Overture/ The Temples of Syrinx/ Grand Finale,” the entire concert felt like one amazing musical story.

Start to finish, the show delivered exactly what is expected from Rush: An incredibly good time. What more can someone ask for?

 

Reach the reporter at tdmcknig@asu.edu