PITTSBURGH - There was steampunk and fire; pop culture and popcorn.
Elaborate videos and quirky stage props supplied visual treats to augment an outstanding musical performance Tuesday by Rush at Consol Energy Center.
The Canadian power-trio blasted off its two-hour-40-minute show with '80s gems "Subdivisions" and "The Big Money."
Peering at the crowd through his Lennon-esque glasses, singer-bassist Geddy Lee pondered aloud if Rush has played Pittsburgh more than any other U.S. city.
"This place is like home to us," Lee said, reminding everyone that the trio's 38-year-old lineup, with drummer Neil Peart and guitarist Alex Lifeson, played its first show across the street at the now-demolished Civic Arena.
Surveying the fan-filled lower-bowl and back upper reaches of Consol Energy Center, Lee said, "Let's see if we can outlast this one."
The show forged ahead with Lee's stout synth and pedal work powering "Grand Designs" and Lifeson's scorching fretwork shining on "The Analog Kid."
The stage was decorated in a steampunk motif - lots of old-timey gears and clocks and brass and whimsically vintage sci-fi devices - offset by a working popcorn machine that heated popcorn the whole night. At one point, a guy in a white lab coat emerged from backstage and grabbed a box of the yellowy popcorn then left as the band continued playing.
The mood turned serious as Lee dedicated "Bravado" to those lost exactly 11 years earlier in the 9/11 attacks. The song's chorus says "We will pay the price, but we will not count the cost."
Surrounded by a mountain of drums on a platform that sometimes rotated, Peart unleashed the first of his three dazzling solos that night, followed by the deep-ish cut "Far Cry" that closed the 10-song opening set.
"We're going to take a short break, because we're not young guys," Lee said.
True, but precious few bands have been around so long and continued to consistently and passionately make music of such lofty quality.
Although the threesome had a little help in its second set; courtesy the eight-piece Clockwork Angels String Ensemble conducted by a man in a hooded sweatshirt.
The ensemble's violinists sliced through Rush's rock thunder, as floor cannons shot flames above the stage. It could have turned into some Trans-Siberian Orchestra-ish pomposity, but Rush is smarter than that; relying on the strings and pyrotechnics to complement, not distract. This was most evident on the "Clockwork Angels" title track, where the string players kept lockstep pace with Lifeson's fierce guitar shredding.
"Here's where we beg your indulgence and ask you to let us play some new songs," Lee said.
That seemed fine with a crowd where the male-to-female ratio was about 80-20. One spectator, about 10 rows back, couldn't resist having fun with that lopsided proportion, holding aloft a sign that said "Proud to be one of the 7 women at a Rush concert."
Rush ripped through a robust batch of songs from the new "Clockwork Angels" album. Lacking the familiarity that decades of classic-rock radio provides, those songs still smoked. If the crowd's most casual fans felt their attention spans waning, they could at least draw entertainment from Rush's video projections, which ran the gamut from Albert Einstein and atom bomb footage, to Japanese anime to glimpses of the Three Stooges and an audio clip of "Austin Powers'" Dr. Evil saying "One million dollars." And hey, wasn't that Canadian film actor Jay Baruchel ("She's Out of My League") in the concert's steampunk-meets-Wizard of Oz intermission and post-show videos?
Some of the best video treatments were the straight-forward closeups of Peart and Lifeson in action. Rightfully regarded as one of rock's all-time best drummers, Peart pounds with speed, force and intelligence. He has a way of pulling songs forward with an urgency that doesn't compromise exhilaration.
Bathed in blue light, Peart's spacy electronic drum solo led to "Red Sector A" then arguably the night's best song, the instrumental "YYZ," a blistering jam with a few sweet solo bass bursts from Lee.
The strings section departed the stage as "Working Man" began with a chunky reggae beat that lasted past the "cold beer" verse before the band, led by Lifeson, switched tempo into full-throttle rock-god fury.
The Rush anthem "Tom Sawyer" appropriately launched the encore. Lee altered his vocal register at times, aiming slightly lower for the "gets high on you" part.
Like he said, he's not young anymore.
His voice always was an acquired taste. He proved Tuesday it's still got the stratospheric power and conviction that fans have embraced.
Rush finished with a 10-minute romp through "2112," which still sounds fresh in 2012.
The audience would have loved if Rush found room for at least one more radio staple, such as "Limelight," Spirit of Radio" or "Fly by Night".
Otherwise, it was a terrific show.
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