TAMPA — It was Cruel Joke Day for the editors.
They wanted me to review the Rush Time Machine tour. After hysterical fits of laughter came the sobering notion they were serious. Rush! They wanted to send a 20-something woman with Gaga tastes into terrifying, Lando Calrissian lands unknown. Had I done something? Was lunch too long that day?
For maximum effect, they said to bring my boyfriend, Jim, who has a Y-chromosome and is thusly into Rush. He squealed when I told him, hoisted an imaginary instrument to his chest and started to slappa-da-bass like Paul Rudd in the Rush-filled movie I Love You, Man.
"I'm slappa da baaaaass!"
People tried to prepare me for the three-hour hirsute, religious service. You just don't understand Rush. It's an experience. Girlfriends will only be there for frozen margaritas.
Friday, the 100-ASK-GARY Amphitheatre crawled with dudes in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Confirming the demographic, the New York Times had set up a booth outside supplying Rush T-shirts with subscriptions.
There were more women than I imagined. Some looked utterly irritated, checking Facebook on their phones, yawning, sipping margaritas as warned. Others, though, looked positively thrilled. A group of guys rushed around one, calling her "hot and into Rush." And a blond woman in a pink halter top next to us was skilled in every air instrument.
My preshow research taught me a few things: There's Geddy Lee, singer and bass slappa, Alex Lifeson, guitar shredder, Neil Peart, drum beast. I learned the shows start with a funny video, and they have an intermission. Intermission! At a rock concert!
Most of all, I learned the fans are oddly passionate.
All true, for the record. The funny video starred the three band members and involved time travel and sausage (appropriate). They came on stage dressed like cool uncles on casual Friday at the office and launched into Spirit of Radio. The crowd of 14,000 flipped. Certifiably. They lost their you-know-what. To the right — air guitar! To the left — air bass! To the rear — air drums!
"This is CHRISTMAS!" shouted one guy. "I'm opening presents!"
The mania wavered a bit for certain songs, like a new Metallica-style number called I Was Brought Up to Believe. But everyone shot up like revivalists for Freewill, in which sage-like Lee wisely advised us that "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."
Then, the breather. Lee explained.
"Due to the fact that, we're, I dunno, 100, we have to take a short break."
Hey, he said it, not me.
During intermission, a fan replayed the first act on a digital camera, explained to his wife exactly what would come in the next half, and reminisced about a cannon boom that had gone off during a song.
"I knew it was coming, but it still got me!"
The time machine clock on the big screen was set to 1980, the year of the album Moving Pictures, which they went on to play in its entirety. And after another short video involving sausage and babes, the band played its biggest hit, Tom Sawyer. I know, because it's on Rock Band for Xbox.
"He threw the drumstick up!" Jim shouted while Peart pounded away. "And he caught it!"
Through Limelight and Red Barchetta, I started to ponder the look of pure ecstasy in the place, the air shredding, the crazy eyes. I pondered the T-shirts filling every corner.
A Farewell to Kings Tour, 1977-78. Rush World Tour 1980. Rush Snakes and Arrows Tour 2007.
These guys were talented, entertaining and mercifully self-deprecating. They were over the top and indulgent. They were unabashedly afraid to jam, even if it meant taking a bathroom break in the middle of the show.
More than anything, though, they were reliable. For more than 40 years. Maybe people need that.
"SLAP THAT BASS, BABY!" screamed a guy behind me.
And so, just a little, I did.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.