When Foo Fighter Dave Grohl inducted Rush into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, he said, “They did it from the ground up. No hype, no bulls***, without any help from the mainstream press — cough — Rolling Stone!”
Early on, the Canadian art-rock band Rush was dismissed as another Led Zeppelin, inspired in part by singer Geddy Lee’s access to Robert Plant’s highest dog-whistle notes. Complicated song structures, obvious displays of musicianship and bookish lyrics that included a controversial dalliance with Ayn Rand’s work didn’t help.
When Rolling Stone finally did come around to the band, critic Rob Sheffield’s review of the reissue of the band’s “2112” was more of an endorsement of Rush’s spunk than the band or the album itself.
“What are Rush but a three-headed ‘It Gets Better’ statement for generations of messed-up adolescents, dreaming of a better world but unwilling to give up on this one?” he wrote.
Still, Rush is now in the Hall of Fame and continues to headline stadium tours.
The Canadian power trio will play the Smoothie King Center Friday, and the secret to its success is also the reason it has been scorned since the beginning.
“They simply don’t play fashionable music,” Rolling Stone’s David Fricke observed in his review of 1980’s “Permanent Waves.” “This band is among the very best in its genre. And if the Top Five status of ‘Permanent Waves’ is any example, it’s a genre wherein critics don’t count at all.”
In the 1970s, Rush had one foot in the blues-based hard rock crunch of Led Zeppelin, and, as time passed, the other in the prog-rock camp of Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis.
Rush’s breakthrough album, 1976’s “2112,” starts with the title cut, a 20-minute track in seven parts that tells a science fiction story about rock and roll against the forces of oppression (spoiler alert: Rock wins).
Song suites would become longer, denser and more complex with unpredictable shifts in time signatures as the band — Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart — seemed more and more confident in what they were capable of.
But punk rock called Emperor’s New Clothes on progressive rock. Lengthy, multi-part, biblically based musical allegories with space hobbits played in 11/4 time came to seem silly, bloated and irrelevant.
Rush survived changing tastes partly because of its outsider status, but also because unlike its peers, it adapted without losing itself.
Genesis gave up the half hour-long “The Musical Box” for pure pop, and after the high-tech “Owner of the Lonely Heart,” Yes disappeared for years.
Rush brought its level of musicianship to a simple, clear rock song in “The Spirit of Radio” in 1980, and harnessed its chops in relatively concise compositions on its masterpiece, 1981’s “Moving Pictures,” which only had one song drift past the 10 minute-mark, and most of the tracks, including the standout “Tom Sawyer,” finish in four minutes or less.
When Rush last played the Smoothie King Center, it played “Moving Pictures” in its entirety. My assumption going in was that it would be a party of dudes in black T-shirts worshipping at the altar of Peart, whose musical dexterity is legendary.
Peart didn’t disappoint as he played a drum kit that surrounded him entirely. During his nightly drum solo spot, the kit rotated 180 degrees mid-solo to put an entirely different set of drums in front of him, changing the texture and tone of what he played.
But men and women alike, with a wider age range than I expected, played air drums along with him — and also air guitar and air synth, participating in the song in spirit.
When they play Friday, it will be on the band’s “R40 Live Tour” celebrating the band’s 40th anniversary, and the set will include songs from all phases of Rush’s career, with much of the encore going back to its first three albums and a few songs that have rarely been performed over the years.
During Dave Grohl’s induction speech into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he viewed the band’s history with the generosity the moment called for, but he also hit on a core truth, at least for the band’s fans.
“Their legacy is that of a band that stayed true to themselves no matter how uncool they seemed to anyone,” he said. Because they did so, “Rush have always been cool.”