Stephen Colbert interrupts Rush, sleeps during Tom Sawyer

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Flipping to Comedy Central tonight [Wed. June 16], I was stunned to see all three members of Canadian rock trio Rush (and all their gear) doing a rendition of “Tom Sawyer” on The Colbert Report. The host rarely brings full bands onto the set — and when he does, it’s usually someone more mainstream or current.

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As it turns out , this was Rush’s first U.S. television performance since playing on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert in 1975 (during their long hair and Chinese robe days).

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Colbert jumped in from of the band during the big drum break of “Tom Sawyer” to thank the band and go to a commercial, but they played on (singer/bassist Geddy Lee almost cracked up). Coming back from the break, Colbert donned a nightcap, grabbed a blanket and pillow, and went to sleep on deck as the song hit its conclusion.

I will admit it: I’ve been a dedicated Rush fan for 25 years. My dad bought me my first snare drum the same year Canadian prog-rock trio Rush released its finest album, 1981’s Moving Pictures. I was still fiddling around with paradiddles and flams, trying to figure out the best way to grip the drumsticks when the album’s three major hits — “Tom Sawyer,” nostalgic and tuneful “Red Barchetta” and elegant “Limelight” — were landing on the rock radio airwaves.

Rush caught my ear. The music sounded heavy and serious. Lee’s crackly, high-pitched voice worked in extreme registers and was frightening and earnest. Alex Lifeson’s guitar and Lee’s bass ground simultaneously. It sounded like a machine, devoid of superfluity. Most important to my impressionable ears, Neil Peart’s fiery drumming was a study in precision, dynamics and control.

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I didn’t catch the band live until the summer of 2002, when they toured through the South. I caught the concert at the enormous Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Charlotte, arriving right at 8:30 p.m. Rush had already started its first set. I could hear the middle verses of “Vital Signs” off of side-two of Moving Pictures as I hustled up to the entrance. It sounded crystal clear — the cleanest, most balanced sound mix I’d ever heard at a large-scale concert.

Lee often hopped around while plucking his Fender Jazz bass (he played on three similar models throughout the set ... no Rickenbacker, though) while Lifeson sauntered around with a goofy smile or a grimace on his face.

Highlights included “Natural Science,” a complex, somewhat obscure winner from Permanent Waves; the flamboyant instrumental “YYZ” from Moving Pictures; the eerie, rumbling sounds from the intro to side one of 1976’s 2112; the grand guitar intro to “Limelight;” the lengthy instrumental tour de force “La Villa Strangiato;” and the three-song encore of “By-Tor & The Snow Dog” from Fly By Night, “Cygnus X-1” from Caress Of Steel, and the hard-rocking “Working Man” from the self-titled debut album.

Rush returns to the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Charlotte on Sun, July 20 at 7:30 p.m. I hope they open with “Tom Sawyer" — and dedicate it to Colbert!

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