The rock world was stunned into submission late last week, momentarily losing its collective heartbeat when word surfaced that Rush drummer Neil Peart had passed away following a three-and-a-half-year battle with brain cancer.
News of his death straddled the two worlds that Peart lived in throughout his career — existing both in and out of the “Limelight” realms that he so eloquently detailed lyrically in one of the band’s best-known songs. Despite his universal renown and recognition as one of the all-time greats behind the kit, Peart treasured his privacy. While it was known that he permanently retired following the end of Rush’s “R40” anniversary tour in August of 2015 due to tendinitis in his arms, there was never a single mention of cancer — that I know of — in the ensuing four and a half years.
To top if off, when the announcement came down on Friday, it was learned that Peart had actually died on Tuesday. That family and friends had been able to keep a three-day cone of silence on his passing, and for it not to have been leaked to the media at all during that time, is remarkable. I strongly suspect Peart has to be smiling from the great beyond for striking one last blow in the name of privacy.
I’ve seen the social media postings from friends and colleagues in the intervening days, as they mourn Peart’s sudden loss — along with the final realization that the hallowed trio that comprise Rush will never perform again — by bouncing through the band’s vast catalog and reliving its undeniable musical glory. While I have watched a few highlight videos, my own introspection has been mostly tugged by revisiting the six times I saw Peart in his natural habitat, sitting in the middle of his circular throne of drums onstage.
I was somewhat late to the Rush party, you might say. The first time I caught the band in concert was on the “Vapor Trails” tour on Aug. 23, 2002, at the Delta Center. Peart’s reputation certainly preceded him, and he lived up to his advanced billing in my eyes, and ears.
Here’s a snippet of what I wrote in my review from that night:
”It’s a great pleasure to be back in Salt Lake City one more time,” (bassist Geddy) Lee said when he finally addressed the audience. “We’ve got about 25 songs to play for you tonight, so get comfortable.”
The audience’s definition of comfortable must have been to remain standing and air-drumming to (Neil) Peart’s thunderous backbeat. Peart, also the band’s sole lyricist, has long been regarded as one of the top drummers in rock, and after watching him for several hours in concert it’s easy to see why.
If you simply listened to Peart’s playing peripherally, while choosing to visually focus on the other members of the band, you would be missing a big part of the Rush experience. Peart’s pounding almost has to be seen — as well as heard — to be believed. Sometimes you don’t realize just how much he is doing until you see it with your own eyes. His eight-minute drum solo midway through the band’s second set was one of the true highlights of the evening.
Incidents in Peart’s personal life were the impetus behind the band’s recent six-year break from touring and recording. A month after finishing the final show on the band’s “Test For Echo” tour in 1997, Peart’s 19-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident. Less than a year later, he lost his wife to cancer.
It was uplifting to see him sharing his immense talent with fans once again.
Rush was back in Salt Lake City two years later on the band’s 30th anniversary tour. Here’s a segment of what I wrote in a review of the June 30, 2004, concert at USANA Amphitheatre:
Rush is drumming up plenty of support on its 30th Anniversary Tour.
Rush drummer Neil Peart — widely acknowledged as one of the best skinsmiths in the annals of rock — put his talents on display for an appreciative audience Wednesday night during a more-than-three-hour concert at the USANA Amphitheatre. In a genre where lead guitarists and singers garner most of the glory, it is refreshing to see a world-class drummer get his due.
The fact that more fans could be seen air-drumming — enthusiastically mimicking Peart’s rhythmic gymnastics with a flurry of upraised hand movements of their own — than following along on imaginary guitars bears testament to Peart’s tremendous ability. The intriguing aspect of Peart’s stature can be found in the fact that he does not exaggerate his efforts or seemingly make any effort to bring extra attention to himself with unnecessary antics.
Indeed, Peart, who remained steadfastly stone-faced through most of the show, doesn’t play to the crowd. He simply plays for it. And there’s a big difference.
... “Tom Sawyer,” “Dreamline,” “La Villa Strangiato” and “2112” stood out in the second set — as did Peart’s hypnotic beat during the appropriately titled “Mystic Rhythms.” Peart also delivered a show-stopping eight-minute drum solo — which was made all the more intriguing when the video screen offered a view of his work from behind. It was indeed stunning, and it’s not often that drum solos turn out to be one of a concert’s true highlights.
After that 2004 concert, Rush fans could pretty much set their time pieces to the band’s upcoming appearances at USANA Amphitheatre. Every three years, there would be an outdoors Rush sighting along the Wasatch Front, as the band hit USANA in 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013. By this point, I was well ingrained in the Rush live experience — and devoted a good part of attention to zeroing in and watching Peart work his magic.
Here’s a snippet from the band’s Aug. 6, 2007, show at USANA Amphitheatre:
Rush has frequently been referred to as a musician’s band — no doubt a reflection on each individual’s relative virtuosity on his instrument. It probably also stems from the fact that none of the three really goes out of their way to play up to the crowd with exaggerated stage maneuvers. The playing tends to speak for itself.
Nowhere was that more evident than with drummer extraordinaire Peart. Those that didn’t take the time in stretches to watch Peart pound the skins in seeming effortlessness truly missed out on one of rock’s great guilty pleasures.
How often can it be said that an eight-minute drum solo is one of the true highlights of a concert? That was the case Monday and, we suspect, during any Rush show. Especially interesting were the different views afforded by the three big screens at the rear of the stage during Peart’s solo — the combined effect of which practically put the viewer right in Peart’s seat behind his massive rotating kit.
Rereading the 2007 review reminded me of perhaps my favorite personal memory of Peart, who was always pretty stoic and displayed a seemingly impenetrable all-business veneer while onstage. That is, except for one occasion. Back to the review:
Watching Peart during the show, I almost got the impression that he went about his business mostly unaware of the audience. He proved me wrong.
Rush was playing “Between the Wheels” near the end of its first set when Barbi and Zane Deweese of Coalville — sitting in the 12th row in the center section — held up a sign that said, “Hey, Chef Ellwood, any extra chop sticks?” (Chef Ellwood references a nickname Peart gave himself in his 2002 book “Ghost Rider.”)
After the song ended, the couple noticed that Peart called over his drum technician and handed him the pair of sticks he had been using. Midway through the next song, a security guard showed up in the audience and handed the sticks to the Coalville couple.
”It’s a dream come true,” Zane Deweese said after the show. “I haven’t missed a Rush show in Utah since 1984.”
The couple had been sitting right in front of me, so I’d been able to watch it all unfold. A very cool moment.
In the band’s “Clockwork Angels” tour in 2013, Peart outdid himself with not one, not two, but three drum solos. His talent level, however, made those moments feel essential, and not at all obligatory or over the top.
One of the main draws of the band, of course, is the sheer musicianship of its members. Being a rock guitar disciple myself, I can think of no other band where I am perfectly fascinated and thoroughly entertained watching the drummer and bass player for the majority of the show. No offense to guitarist Alex Lifeson, who is certainly no slouch on his rotating arsenal of Les Pauls, but (Geddy) Lee (on bass) and drummer Neil Peart are recognized as bonafide Top 5 all-time talents on their individual instruments — a fact which is consistently driven home during the course of a concert.
Peart is so revered, for example, that he merited three different drum solos Wednesday. While extended drum interludes at most concerts offer opportune beverage and bathroom breaks for the marginal fan, that doesn’t happen with Peart behind the kit. In fact, I know this will sound odd to those who have not witnessed it firsthand, but it’s almost as if a subdued reverence washes over the crowd. Loud cheers and chants are instead replaced with an almost stunned silence — that not even a talking Pez dispenser on the knee dares upstage. It’s an environmental phenomenon that only the true greats can create.
Part of the Peart mystery is how he can appear so detached and nonplussed while he is literally killing it on the kit. Yet, just when you think it’s simply another night at the office you catch a glimpse of something different — like the moment in “The Spirit of Radio” where a drum tech came on stage to adjust a part of Peart’s expansive drum throne, and Lifeson wandered over and did something that elicited a large, spontaneous smile from the drummer — that shows you he’s fully aware of his surroundings.
Outside of his pure technique, Peart does entertain with frequent twirls of the sticks in his hands and mid-air toss-and-grabs — although there were (gasp!) two occasions where he snatched nothing but air. Hey, nobody’s perfect — although Peart is comfortably close.
Which brings us to the band’s final Salt Lake appearance, which occurred on July 13, 2015, at the Maverik Center. This was the “R40 Tour,” celebrating Rush’s 40th anniversary. As it turned out, it was the first of the band’s final 10 concerts.
The concept of this show was one of the most unique I’ve ever witnessed, with the whole thing unfolding in reverse chronological order — and stage accompaniment to match. So while there was a full complement of video screens, amazing lighting and walls of amps at the beginning, things gradually downsized, matching the band’s development at the era of the music, until the group was left performing the final song — its first single — in the equivalent of a high school gym.
Here’s the Peart pertinent part of the review:
Peart is always in the conversation when it comes to greatest rock drummers of all time and anyone watching him over the course of three hours Monday can readily see why. Seemingly in his own little world, often appearing to have his eyes closed, Peart isn’t so much a constant blur of motion behind his elaborate drum kit as he is a study in concentrated, compact technical prowess.
It is never a surprise at any Rush show to look around and see the extended arms of air drummers throughout the arena, flailing and popping along in various stages of relative synchronicity to Peart’s numerous roiling fills and stylings.
People should consider themselves lucky anytime they have the opportunity to witness true greatness. Like watching Michael Jordan play basketball, Eddie Van Halen play guitar or Ken Jennings phrase a correct question on “Jeopardy!”
Watching Neil Peart play drums is in that same rarefied category. I’ll always be thankful for those six opportunities.