Three songs into Rush's show on Sunday night--directly after a hard-charging, disorienting version of 'Force 10'--bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Geddy Lee greeted a nearly-full arena in his typically droll fashion.

"Good evening, Cleveland!" he exclaimed, amid roaring cheers. "Once again, we are here -- and once again, you show up!"

The members of Rush didn't exactly need to worry about a Cleveland audience supporting them; after all, the Canadian trio has history with the city dating back to 1974's 'Working Man.' But perhaps because of the home-away-from-home vibe, the band was especially energized and engaged during its three(ish)-hour set.

The night began with fan-favorite 'Subdivisions' and 'The Big Money,' a cut from 1985's 'Power Windows.' These keyboard tour de forces set the tone for set one, which largely focused on Rush's '80s output.

While this choice of decades might not have pleased all Rush fans, the band's execution was flawless: 'Analog Kid' melded zooming keyboard drone with punk's energy, heavy metal speed and a fierce Alex Lifeson solo; the song sounded like it was recorded yesterday. So did 'The Pass,' an evocative, sensitive anthem from 1989's 'Presto.'

Other highlights included 'Territories' -- during which Lee presided over his ornate synth setup like The Great Oz and, later, moved in front of the audience for some Zen-like bass moves -- and the galloping, insistent obscurity 'Middletown Dreams.' These 'Power Windows' deep cuts sounded entirely contemporary, a testament to how ahead of its time Rush's music has always been, both musically and thematically.

Still, the nasty funk of 'Where's My Thing' was the standout. Lee slapped his bass like he was ripping off a Band-Aid, while Peart's drum solo (one of several he performed during the show, of course) was typically impressive: His feet moved at blinding speed -- and this movement dwarfed only by stick-work so fast, it looked like he was dicing vegetables with a samurai sword.

The first set ended with 'Far Cry,' a monstrous, growling rock anthem with hypnotizing harmonies and a generous display of pyro.

The night's second set was one fans approached with equal parts curiosity and consternation: For the first time ever, Rush was bringing auxiliary musicians on tour with it. More specifically, the extra bodies were a string ensemble, dubbed the Clockwork Angels String Ensemble. Naturally, they were on hand to add bulk and weight to songs from Rush's latest album of the same name. And for the most part, they were entirely successful.

When many bands bring a string ensemble on tour, that means stripped-down versions of familiar songs. But save for 'The Garden' -- the quietest and easily the weakest song of the night -- these players expanded Rush's already rich sound.

In fact, on most songs the ensemble's parts functioned like a synthesizer part, adding lively rhythms and textures to the music. (Plus, the excitement of the ensemble was infectious; several of the musicians were so excited to be onstage, they were headbanging in between playing their parts.)

This mini-orchestra added a thundering backdrop to the futuristic soundscapes of  'The Anarchist,' while on the glammy, jangly standout 'The Wreckers,' the strings (and a keening guitar solo from Alex Lifeson) simulated stormy seas. Even better was the energetic, powerful 'Headlong Flight,' a ferocious surge with punk overtones on which Lee screamed at the top of his range.

More impressive, this orchestral power carried over to older songs reworked with the ensemble: the space-prog of 'Dreamline' (which featured a touching video tribute to astronaut Neil Armstrong at the end), the one-two punch of the alien-funk 'Red Sector A' and the one-man rave/drum solo 'The Percussor,' and, of course, 'YYZ.'

By now, the appearance of this instrumental is a communal bonding experience for fans -- and, as if sensing the crowd's enthusiasm for it, Sunday's performance was particularly searing.

Indeed, music aside, the chemistry between the members of Rush was a joy to behold. It's not quite correct to say the band is ever relaxed on stage; after all, it's clearly focused on the precise execution of its music. And Lifeson in particular was intense; the guitarist knocked out snarling solos and unleashed jagged, scorched riffs, his face contorted in intense concentration.

But moreso than ever, the members of Rush are clearly enjoying being on stage -- and having fun while sculpting their music. For instance, during 'Wish Them Well,' Lee encouraged Lifeson to dance -- and, on cue, the guitarist pulled out a silly little jig. At another time, Lee gestured toward Peart just before a drum solo, as if to say, 'Get a load of this guy!' And the band's interstitial movies, a beloved tradition, were particularly hilarious on this tour. (Steampunk dwarves, anyone?)

Rush is such a solid live band -- and has been for so many years -- that it's almost too easy to take it for granted. But this most recent Cleveland show was something special; it was a group at the top of its game, both creativity and personally.

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