Whether it comes down to talent, musical choices, or the genius of their management, Rush continues to pull off an inspired feat: embedding themselves in the rock mainstream while maintaining a reputation as music biz outsiders and, deceptively, cultural dark horses. It’s a trick most rock and punk bands would kill for and it actually does come down to a question of honesty. Rush never cared about being one of the cool kids and guess what, turns out the world’s not made up of cool kids after all. And those un-cool kids want to see their band live.
Based on the evidence of Rush’s officially released live catalog, you’d be hard pressed to find a better, or better-documented, live “stadium” rock band. For its consistent onstage delivery the band itself credits its grind in the clubs of Toronto in the early 1970s. As that decade wore on and they began writing increasingly complex studio material, their live shows became acrobatic technical workouts showcasing tremendous talent (and perhaps some excess too). But when they first started touring in support of studio albums, their music and their onstage act fit somewhere between Humble Pie, Led Zeppelin, and Ted Nugent.
Rush: ABC 1974 captures the band in Cleveland on its first American tour, with a few bonus tracks, also from Cleveland, the following year. The shows are notable because they were recorded by WMMS, famously instrumental in builiding Rush’s career, and also because the show in August 1974 was the first U.S. broadcast of the band. More importantly, though, the ’74 show includes new drummer Neil Peart. It’s something of an awkward moment: Rush’s first album is a riff metal powerhouse, anchored by drummer John Rutsey’s straight ahead hard rock pounding and suggesting as much Black Sabbath as Led Zeppelin. Peart’s still finding his feet on this set, busy-ing up songs that maybe can’t sustain his presence. Still, given they’re from the band’s early days as professionals, the performances are outstanding, with early album hit “Working Man” the obvious crowd pleaser and “What You’re Doing” as mind-bendingly great a piece of stoner rock live as on record. The duds are all songs Rush wisely never put on an album and a cover of “Bad Boy” that doesn’t really go anywhere. The three bonus tracks from 1975 suffer from poor audio quality while offering a glimpse of Fly By Night. That title track, the first real success of Rush mach II, bristles with their new sound, and is genuinely exciting to hear despite the muddy recording. The other songs from Fly By Night (including Anthem and Beneath, Between, and Behind) also distinguish themselves by containing an energy of a sort entirely different, as well as a lyrical focus stretching beyond the rock tropes that characterize Rush’s first. It’s pretty clear that the band has re-set its course.
I can’t tell you what the deal is with this record, if Rush actually has any say over its release or not, but there’s nothing here that doesn’t speak well of the band in its formative days; and, if you’re a fan of that era, then the heaviosity on display in Cleveland in ‘74 is pretty much guaranteed to take you to church.