45 years ago, ‘unknown band’ Rush played Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena
The concert promoter didn’t want them, the lead singer was so buzzed he didn’t know how they did, and their performance garnered only a single sentence in a review published in the Valley News Dispatch a week later.
Rush was an unknown band from Canada when they played the Civic Arena 45 years ago, on Aug. 14, 1974. It was the first gig the band played with its new drummer, Neil Peart, who joined just two weeks before after being plucked from behind the parts counter at his father’s farm equipment dealership.
Despite such an inauspicious beginning, it was the start of a 40-plus-year career that would see the trio — Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Peart — rise from playing for a few dozen in church basements to a crowd of 60,000 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.
But 45 years ago, Rush was an opening act for two British rock bands, Uriah Heep and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, in Pittsburgh. They were given 24 minutes to play, Lee said in an interview with Rolling Stone.
Concert promoter Rich Engler, an East Deer native, didn’t remember a lot about that first show other than the fact they played.
Engler, one half of DiCesare-Engler Productions, said he put Rush on as a favor to their agent, who he said pushed the band on him.
“I didn’t want them. They were unknown,” Engler told the Tribune-Review. “Putting a third act on a show costs extra money. If you put somebody on like that, you want them to be able to sell tickets. Nobody knew who they were.”
In 1974, Rush was just beginning to gain traction in the United States after a Cleveland DJ, Donna Halper on WMMS-FM, started playing “Working Man” from their debut self-titled album with the band’s original drummer, John Rutsey.
Rutsey was replaced over health concerns related to diabetes. He died in 2008 at the age of 55.
As told in the 2010 documentary, “Beyond the Lighted Stage,” Rush played to 11,000 people at the Civic Arena.
“It was huge,” Lee said in the documentary. “This was the start of our tour, and it was America — big, bold, beautiful America. We were so excited to be doing it.”
Their short set consisted of five songs, including a cover of Larry Williams’ “Bad Boy” and a drum solo.
In the documentary, Lee recalled drinking from a little bottle of Southern Comfort before the show.
“I remember taking a sip of this stuff and it went straight to my head and I was completely dizzy,” he said. “And we hit the stage. By the time I kind of came to my senses, the set was over and we were off and had no idea how well we played.”
But Uriah Heep guitarist Mick Box said the trio “nailed it.”
“It was obvious that they were gonna move up the ladder pretty quick,” Box said in the documentary.
After they started getting airplay with their second album, “Fly By Night” (1975), Engler was bringing Rush to town as headliners.
“They’re great guys, and I can’t say enough about the band,” he said.
About a week later, then-Valley News Dispatch entertainment writer Rex Rutkoski reviewed the show in his “Vibrations” column focusing on Uriah Heep and Manfred Mann.
“It was heavy metal in the city of steel last week, served up British style,” he wrote about the show, during which the arena’s retractable roof was open.
His only mention of Rush was to say: “A Canadian trio, Rush, rocked in the preliminary.”
While Ultimate Classic Rock took it as Rutkoski being “less than enthused,” Rutkoski said it wasn’t intended as a slight against the band.
“In those days, opening acts, or ‘baby bands’ as they were known, were virtually thrust on the promoter by the band management or the record company,” he said. “I was not being dismissive of Rush. We generally didn’t cover opening acts when space was tight, which it was for this particular column. When there was room, I loved turning readers on to new bands.”
Highlights from “R40” will be featured in an upcoming theater event, “Cinema Strangiato,” which will be shown one night only on Aug. 21.
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .