If Rush's run of concerts celebrating their 40th birthday does turn out to be their "last major tour of this magnitude," the trio can step back and be satisfied they went out on their terms, judging by the marathon, intense show last night (June 8) in Columbus, Ohio.

As anyone who's peeked at previous R40 Live Tour reports knows, the setlist this time around is a fan-geared, career-spanning one packed full of rarities such as "Jacob's Ladder" and “Lakeside Park.” In true contrarian Rush form, however, they're reminiscing in backward chronological order, meaning the night opened with three songs from 2012's Clockwork Angels: "The Anarchist," the title track and "Headlong Flight." Even without the presence of the orchestra that made the band's last major tour special, these songs were monstrous.

The rest of the first set quickly flipped through the last two decades of Rush albums, with Vapor Trails' frantic marbled rocker "One Little Victory" and Counterparts' hulking prog yelp "Animate" as highlights. On these, the band leveraged their gigantic video screen to great effect: The former came complete with backdrop video footage of a dragon and puffs of actual smoke emanating from his animated nostrils, while the latter flashed gigantic lyrics from the song (Sensitize, Complicate, Levitate) to emphasize the song's salient points.

A fiery "Roll The Bones" came complete with a mid-song video featuring appearances from Peter Dinklage, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Tom Morello and others, before the first set arrived in the early '80s for the one-two punch of "Distant Early Warning" and "Subdivisions." The band's synth-heavy work remains polarizing, but time has been kind to both of these songs. "Distant Early Warning" was particularly tenacious: The band interspersed footage from the song's video with current images of them onstage—a touching juxtaposition of the past and present—as frontman/bassist Geddy Lee pounded on a synthesizer onstage, delighting the fans pumping their fists in rhythm with the keyboard stabs.

"We need to take a short break to resuscitate," Lee said after the conclusion of "Subdivisions," and he wasn't kidding: The second set focused on several of the band's most complex, physically laborious compositions from the '70s. (As Lee put it when Rush returned to the stage: "Welcome to the second half, as we devolve into our past.") The band eased into these peaks with a trio of favorites: "Tom Sawyer," "Red Barchetta" and "The Spirit Of Radio." During the latter song, guitarist Alex Lifeson and Lee converged at center stage and briefly played their parts next to each other; the pair parted and went back to their respective stage corners with sly, knowing grins, the sign of two old friends and seasoned collaborators who knew they hit their mark.

"Jacob's Ladder" came next, its dark corners and gnarled instrumentation both ominous and mystifying. And then came one of the night's high points, sections from the band's "Cygnus X-1" song series. In keeping with the night's strict backward theme, Rush first performed "Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres Part I: Prelude," with Lee's bass solo on the song as sticky like black tar, and then parts 1 and 3 of "Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage." An impressive lighting display dominated by lasers enveloped the arena, which exacerbated the fantastical tone of the music but didn't mask the physical and mental energy it took to recreate this music live.
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In between, these parts, drummer Neil Peart took center stage for his customary drum solo. He came off like an animal stalking his prey in the jungle, pounding out primal thumps and then easing into a more insistent, almost danceable, section that resembled an abstract take on LCD Soundsystem. From there, Lee and Lifeson again nodded to a beloved part of their past by bringing out double-necked guitars for "Xanadu," which contrasted well with Peart's more delicate chimes and Lee's Moog lines. Yet as the second set ended, Lifeson had the final word, coaxing out squalling riffs at the end of "Xanadu" and then dominating the "2112" overture by fluidly veering from roiling grunge to more atmospheric ambient beauty.

Throughout the night, Rush's sense of absurd humor was in full effect. A hilarious outtake reel from their previous short film "No Country For Old Hens" gave way to South Park footage mentioning the band, while workers wearing red R40 jumpsuits continually worked in the background of the stage during the show, moving around and dissembling speaker piles or bringing props such as washing machines to the stage. (During "2112," two men wearing robes with the word Lifeson and number 15 on their back wandered onstage, with one sipping tea. The band continued as if they weren't even there.) These moments were all inside jokes to the fans who have supported Rush all these years, who in turn expressed their own gestures of gratitude. In fact, signs and T-shirts saying, "Thank you Rush" were spotted throughout the arena.

The idea that Rush may no longer tour on a large scale is a tough pill to swallow. The band is so reliably good (and, in fact, continues to keep getting better with each subsequent tour) that not having them around is almost inconceivable. However, if the band is taking things down a notch or two, last night's performance will remain one for the books as a demonstration of Rush's innovative, intelligent and awe-inspiring music.

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