Dressed in a white suit and black shirt, with shoes he claimed to have purchased at a second-hand store ("Best $23 I ever spent. I knew I made the right choice because my wife and daughter hate them!"), his wavy white hair and bushy mustache find him resembling a current incarnation of Mark Twain, a fair comparison considering he's equally adept at observations.
Rush's second offering, "Fall Into the Night," was equally appropriate for a balmy South Florida evening; while the rest of the nation shivers, our temperatures top 70 degrees. Most of the material that followed during the first set kept the energy and humor high up on the list of priorities, with comical monologues and personal recollections filling the space between his songs. After "Fall Into the Night," he noted that the song's composer, Eliza Gilkyson, took the tune into "metaphysical directions," but he believed that the focus ought to remain on the line about the girl taking her blue jeans off. "But that's just me," he admitted, eliciting the crowd's hearty chuckle.
A song called "Making the Best of a Bad Situation" was punctuated by laughter several times, especially when Rush related tales of the song's hapless heroes who suffered horrible misfortunes -- a husband who acted like a chicken, an alligator wrestler who had his ears bitten off -- and comically turned those circumstances to their advantage. Likewise, a song simply titled "Remember?" struck a responsive note with the aging baby boomers in the audience as Rush freely reflected on one of the more annoying hazards of aging: the tendency to lose everyday objects and forget one's focus.
An errant cell phone rang during his performance. Rush stopped suddenly, a surprised look on his face. "I told her not to call me at the office," he said, mock insistently.
Still, for all the humor and good-natured banter, there were moments of serious reflection. His poignant take on Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going," a song he recorded early on, well before she gained fame on her own, was preceded by the story of how the two first met at a small Midwestern club that happened to be owned by a man who married two successive women named Ethel. (After all, one shouldn't expect Rush to remain too serious too long.)
A take on the familiar blues standard "Baby, Please Don't Go" was intro-ed with a short discourse on the song's actual origins and given a soulful delivery all the more appropriate given the context. Likewise, his sensitive read of the familiar standard "Drift Away," also included on that latest album, stripped the song down to its emotional essence and gave it due diligence. He followed with a hilarious tale on the role he played as part of the touring group on the Festival Express, a 1970 train tour that took a merry band of musicians -- among them the Grateful Dead, the Band, Janis Joplin, Eric Andersen "and me!" -- across the southern stretch of Canada. "We ran out of drinks just west of Toronto," he wryly noted. "And we started out in Toronto!" His recollection of a skinny-dipping, 300-pound Leslie West, clad only in twin bathing caps, one for his massive Afro, the other for his bushy beard -- was all-too-vivid even 40 years later.
After taking a break -- extended further by the fact that he made his way to the merch table to greet the fans who were gawking at his wares -- Rush, sans jacket and in a short sleeve dark shirt, began his second set on an equally upbeat note with his seminal version of "Ladies Love Outlaws." Yet the mood quickly turned pensive with takes on Jackson Browne's "These Days" ("Jackson wrote that at 16. I hate him," he joked.), his own "River Song," and the lovely "What I Know," which he claimed he wrote for his wife when he was out on the road during Valentine's Day.
The high point came with "a medley of my hit," the incomparable "No Regrets," which he punctuated with his always-agile fretwork. Finally, he related some nostalgic tales of his upbringing and hometown in New Hampshire, nailing the accent perfectly before saluting those northern environs with another signature song, "Merrimac County."
With that, Rush left the stage, only to return moments later with the tear-evoking "Child Song" as his encore. "I don't want to leave you with a sad song," he suggested after its conclusion, "So here's one about a flood that killed 12,000 people." He then sang the traditional "Galveston Flood," playing some superb bottleneck guitar, with the instrument perched on his lap and a common kitchen knife to slide over the frets.
Then he was off, only to appear mere moments later at the merch table to sign more autographs and greet more fans. It's likely that those who lined up to speak with him walked away feeling they had made a new friend.
I know, because I felt the same way.
Personal bias: Having interviewed him twice, I felt a personal connection. And when he mentioned a question I had asked him in a recent interview, I was especially delighted that he thought it insightful enough to repeat onstage.
Random detail: For a man on the precipice of 70, he appears as vibrant as ever.
By the way:
Rush is one of modern folk music's true heroes. You definitely ought to catch him the next time around.