My original aim in this blog was to document what kind of non-Rush shirts were worn by Rush fans at the band's concert Sunday night.
However, the results were fundamentally uninteresting. Kiss, Iron Maiden on the old guard, and on younger fans, modern proggy acts like Primus and Tool. There also was a young man wearing a Mumford and Sons shirt, but he was the only real anomaly. There should be nothing peculiar about people wearing shirts for other arena rock bands at a concert by an arena rock band, but the case for Rush is different.
At most Rush concerts, such as the one Sunday night, the overwhelming majority of band shirts worn are Rush shirts. This flies in the face of an unwritten code of live music decorum that I will term as the "that guy" rule, in reference to a line from the otherwise unimpressive '90s comedy PCU.
In most music scenes, you should not aspire to be "that guy" (or "that girl" or "that [insert gender-appropriate term here]") who wears the shirt of the band he is going to see. It's redundant. People understand your enthusiasm and interest toward the band because you made it to the show. You don't need the shirt to broadcast that, so you are better off wearing something else if you want to communicate some kind of message to people. This line of thinking does not apply at Rush concerts, not because of any widespread obliviousness to this rule on the part of Rush fans, but because of how Rush exists as a band and a brand.
Rush is its own thing; "that guy" rules don't apply. Though it certainly is true that the band can be classified as prog rock and, therefore, lumped into the same category as Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, the men of Rush act in a singular and insular manner. The band has been touring without an opening act for over a decade, never does festival appearances, and only recently has come back into the media limelight (pun intended) with appearances on The Colbert Report and in the film I Love You Man.
When you see Rush, you are seeing a band that exists in a vacuum, that is concerned only with its own history rather than its place in the annals of rock history. Rush has no sense of solidarity with their prog-rock contemporaries like there is with the sense of "brotherhood" in metal and "unity" in hardcore punk. I would not say that they are on another level, but they definitely exist in a different space than most other bands that got big in the '70s, and I think most of their fans understand that. Thus, the musicological conversation of T-shirt semiotics at a Rush concert is limited strictly to Rush, making a shirt for any band other than Rush as meaningless of a marker of musical tastes as just a plain shirt. You can't dress "prog" at a Rush concert in the same way you can dress metal if you go to a metal show by wearing a shirt of some band affiliated with the genre, being careful to avoid being "that guy". If you see Rush as a diehard Rush fan, you have to dress "Rush" and find ways to express yourself within the context of Rush.
Thankfully, the merch table provides plenty of options for just that. Rush's inventory of clothing merchandise is much more eclectic that of most other bands. Just as the band's sound has changed over the years, so has its aesthetic with the artwork of albums ranging from the sci-fi/fantasy inspired 2112 to the modernist Signals, to their recent steampunk inspired album Clockwork Angels. The band does not even have one consistent logo, as that too usually changes with each album.
What this means is that the shirts for each tour are most likely going to be very different each time, creating a back catalog that is more varied than a band like Iron Maiden, who has one iconic label and a generally unified aesthetic across their career (via Derrick Riggs' cover art). Whether it's new or retro, it usually manages to stay in print somewhere, putting dozens of shirt varieties on the market. On top of this, Rush's merch inventory also extends into non-album inspired styles such as baseball jerseys, as well as 3rd party prints such as a very popular "Got Peart" T-shirt.
When you wear a Rush shirt, it is not only broadcasting your interest in the band, but also your enthusiasm and knowledge for a certain album or period, so a shirt for a divisive album like Power Windows can end up being a conversation starter, while a shirt with the Fly By Night owl on it might be reflective of less nuanced tastes. Like gang colors or those Russian prison tattoos documented in Mark of Cain, every Rush shirt denotes something about it's wearer.
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Essentially, Rush is a cult band like the Grateful Dead, but with a much more softcore fanbase. However, Deadheads and Rush fans both occupy spaces where the transgression of certain social boundaries are permitted. For Deadheads, this usually has to do with experimentation with drugs and growing out facial hair. For Rush fans, it is the ability to be "that guy" with impunity.
It might not be that exotic, but a Rush concert is a haven for one of live music's most well-known taboos.