It was enough to paralyze the most stoic of us. In the course of 10 months, Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart lost his 19-year-old daughter Selena to an automobile wreck and his wife, Jacqueline Taylor, to cancer. When Peart, widely regarded as the band’s creative nucleus, retreated to a cabin in the Canadian woods to live a solitary existence, Rush appeared to have passed on as well.
Speaking of his notoriously private friend and bandmate, Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson says there was not a lot of hope that Rush would carry on. “Neil’s recovery was a long, difficult process and all that Geddy and I could do was support him and … and wait, until he was ready to come back to work, if that day ever came.”
Thankfully, it did. Peart “kinda hit bottom,” then slowly began to haul himself from the abyss. In summer of 2000, says the soft-spoken guitarist, Peart made contact with him and bassist-vocalist Geddy Lee. “We spent a day talking about the prospect of working again and he expressed that he wasn’t sure whether he could do it or not, but he’d like to try it. Once we got into the studio and he knew that there was an easy schedule to it, that it wasn’t too demanding, I think he felt a lot more comfortable. And we all felt more comfortable.”
The trio worked slowly, practicing a few hours at a time and with no particular deadline. Lee and Lifeson would jam in one room of Lifeson’s studio, Peart holed up in another, composing his legendarily literate lyrics. Eventually, the drummer would emerge to vent on his drums. Songs came together in their own sweet time and more than a year later, the band emerged with Vapor Trails (Atlantic), a raw and, not surprisingly, visceral album.
“There was a little bit of adjustment, but it wasn’t too difficult. Once we settled in, it was smooth sailing. We realized that we still had a lot of music in us and that we really respected each other and understood more clearly the strengths that we had and became more dependent on each other for things. There was a lot of latitude to express ourselves.”
Vapor Trails, the band’s 17th studio album, represents a return to basics for Rush. Where past albums, reaching back into the ’80s, have prominently featured keyboards, the new record has none. The guitar-bass-drums sound is reminiscent of early Rush, though reflective of the band’s growth over two decades (chiefly, the past six years which, in addition to Peart’s tragedy, have seen Lifeson and Lee pursuing other creative outlets, producing other bands and recording solo records). Rush, in its 35th year, sounds invigorated.
“I think it’s a much rawer record,” Lifeson opines. “It’s more organic. It’s more representative of us, just playing our primary instruments. For me, it was important not to have keyboards. I thought it was more important to create those sort of textures that keyboards are used for on the guitar or with Geddy’s voice. So that made us explore different areas and work in different ways.”
Naturally, the band is hitting the road to promote the disc, and Rush fans couldn’t be happier. Billed as “An Evening With Rush,” the three-hour set is comprised of classics such as “Tom Sawyer,” “Freewill” and “Fly by Night” as well as rare nuggets such as “La Villa Strangiato.” But given the band’s wealth of material, even a marathon set such as this proved challenging in terms of song selection.
“The set was around four-and-a-half hours, originally, including everything we wanted to play. But three hours is a long time and it’s probably plenty for us. In terms of the show, the pacing works very well at that length. Anything more would be a little too much and, certainly, anything less would be a problem.”
It comes down to value, he continues. “I’ve been to a couple of shows and I’m surprised at how short people play these days. I went to see Tool and they played for about an hour. Creed played for less than an hour—I didn’t go to that show, but somebody told me about it. I was quite shocked by that.”
Certainly, Rush is back in business and quite happy about it. But how long will it last? Nobody knows, not even them. Lifeson says it’s hard to know what the future holds, and Rush tries not to make plans for the future.
“I think we’ve learned, in the recent past, that anything can happen at any time and the world can turn around in a split second. We’re just concentrating on this tour and we’re really enjoying it. This is the best we’ve played and, I think, the best we’ve sounded. If we finish this tour feeling this positively about it, I don’t see why we wouldn’t go out again.”