Summerfest Day 8: Rush, Matt Pond, ZZ Ward, and Guster
- MONDO LUCHA! celebrates fifth anniversary in high-flying style at Turner Hall
- David Sedaris goes off book, shines at Pabst Theater
- Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck offer glimpses of greatness at Riverside Theater
- John Hodgman, Kristen Schaal, Eugene Mirman give Pabst Theater three shows for price of one
- Top 5 musical moments from Kenosha’s 2013 Ride of the Living Dead
Geddy Lee basically has two choices: He could acknowledge the condition of his nearly 60-year-old vocal cords and stop being the singer of Rush, thereby making his millions of fans very sad; or he could soldier on and belt out Rush songs in that increasingly quavering and imprecise high register, and continue to make those millions of fans happy. Thursday’s Independence Day crowd was one of the smallest Rush has attracted for its traditional Summerfest appearance every two or three years, but none of the assembled nerds were complaining about that voice as their heroes tore through two lengthy sets of classics, rarities and new tunes. In every other respect, Rush is still just about as good as ever.
These Canadian icons are well aware of their geeky status, and in a move that would delight diehard fans of almost any band, they've composed their opening set list of lesser-known album cuts. This approach is sure to dismay casual attendees, but Rush has made a career out of defying expectations and doing whatever its three members feel like doing. Following the opener “Subdivisions,” it was mostly rarities, including four total tracks from 1985’s dark, largely synth-based Power Windows album. It almost goes without saying that the band is still instrumentally tight, and not just in terms of nailing the often complex rhythmic changes and intricate compositions; guitarist Alex Lifeson was amazing with his improv, most notably the crowd-pleasing one-two punch of “The Analog Kid” and “Bravado.” He’s traditionally been a straight-ahead prog-rock shredder, but he showcased some unexpected shoegaze and jazzy stylistic elements into his brief, powerful solos at this show. But the biggest surprise might have been Neil Peart’s drum solo, which was very traditional with no frills or special effects—just a love affair between a man and his snare.
There seemed to be a technical glitch following the guitar solo in “Force Ten,” and Lee’s “oh-oh-oh” mantra did make “Grand Designs” a bit tedious, but otherwise the first set was strong, although there’s no reason Rush needs to keep doggedly playing the weak latter-day track “Far Cry” at every show. Last year’s Clockwork Angels was significantly better than anything the band had released in the previous decade, and songs from that album made up the majority of the second set. The accompanying Clockwork Angels String Ensemble rarely took the spotlight; they were extremely effective during a menacing rendition of “The Anarchist,” and only seemed out of place during the somewhat cheesy “Seven Cities Of Gold.”
Overall, the new material was another chance for Lifeson to run wild, particularly on the epic new arrangement of “Headlong Flight” (which included another very brief drum solo) and “Clockwork Angels,” although Lee’s bass work was equally impressive throughout the second set. Then, following “Manhattan Project,” came another drum solo, this time with the electronic triggers setting off various melodic sounds coinciding with Peart’s precision stick work. Unlike on previous tours, this was anything but bombastic, more of a subdued and weird descent into an eerie rhythmic soundscape. No other drummer could possibly get away with three drum solos in one show, but the man’s artistry and imagination is as intact as his technical skill, and with three shorter solos rather than the one long one, it never got boring to watch and hear the master at work.
There was precious little room for the big hits at the end, but the band managed to squeeze in “YYZ,” “The Spirit Of Radio,” and “Tom Sawyer” before the full “2112” suite that ended the show. These songs weren’t embellished at all, and actually seemed a bit forced compared to the vital and inspired show that preceded them, but ending the main set with “Radio” was a very fitting (if surely unintentional) Summerfest sendoff; if ever there was a place that “echoes with the sound of salesmen,” this was it. [Cal Roach]
“This is a song,” Matt Pond (who recently dropped the PA from his moniker) deadpanned before ripping through an hour-and-fifteen-minute set of up-tempo, guitar-based melodies at the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard. He’d recycle that joke four more times during his set, but it didn’t really matter that his stage banter was lacking. He would end up putting on the best performance the stage saw Thursday.
The bluesy-pop singer ZZ Ward came up next, and we had high hopes, but she would ultimately turn out to be the day’s biggest disappointment. Her set lacked any imagination, and was full of forced handclaps and hammy guitar solos. We were definitely impressed by her guitar player’s sweet mullet, though. She mainly belted out vaguely blues and hip-hop-inspired pop songs behind a black fedora and an acoustic guitar.
What really irritated us, however, was how inauthentic her material sounded. At one point, she sang a song about alcohol, and then asked the crowd what she should imbibe in order to fit into the Summerfest audience. “Should I drink Milwaukee’s Best?” After a round of more than appropriate boos, she responded, “Oh, okay. How about Coors?” For a so-called blues admirer—she listed off several of her favorite acts to give herself some merit—we’d think she’d spend a little more time in a couple dingy blues bars to have at least a passing knowledge of beer. More head scratching was that she would return to play an encore that no one really expected or necessarily wanted.
After that travesty, we stuck around for Guster to cleanse our palette, and well, if there’s more of a Summerfest institution than this band we’d like to hear it. They’ve played here about a dozen times, though, honestly, we’ve lost count. To our surprise, the band walked on stage to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “[Untitled],” but all 5,000 indie rock cool points earned with that entrance were immediately wiped away when they hammered through a song that was heavy on the bongos.
It’s definitely their shtick, but weaning off the bongos has been one of the smartest moves the band has made in recent years. We only stuck around for a couple songs that utilized a real drum kit, “Architects and Engineers” and “One Man Wrecking Machine.” Not surprisingly, they would happen to be two favorites. [Kevin Mueller]