Neil Peart was a true virtuoso behind the kit, the unwavering foundation upon which his bandmates stood. The longtime Rush drummer and lyricist passed away last week, succumbing to brain cancer after a three-and-a-half-year battle. As Dave Grohl wrote in a eulogy, fans and fellow musicians sometimes referred to Peart as “The Professor” because there was always something to learn from him. His performances brought the rhythm section to the forefront, and his rarely paralleled technical prowess inspired millions to pick up a pair of sticks.
Peart never stopped his own education, either: In his later years, he went out of his way to seek mentorship from jazz greats like Freddie Gruber and Peter Erskine. “What is a master but a master student?” Peart wondered in 2012. “I’ve been put in this position, and I certainly don’t underrate that… So it’s a full-time responsibility. It’s a joyous one and one I’m very grateful for.” To remember one of the all-time great rock drummers, here are five definitive live performances.
“By-Tor & the Snow Dog” (Montreal, 1981)
Peart didn’t join Rush until 1974, after bassist/singer Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson had played with drummer John Rutsey for six years. Peart’s first album with the group, 1975’s Fly By Night, was the point at which Rush started to sound like Rush—winding, progressive rock instead of the Led Zeppelin-lite vibe of their debut. Clocking in at almost nine minutes, Fly By Night’s “By-Tor & the Snow Dog” was the band’s longest song to date upon release, and the first of many multipart epics to come. This live performance of it, from 1981’s Exit… Stage Left, showcases Peart’s intense playing at a moment when Rush were arguably at their live peak. Check out the interplay at 3:27, where he alternates between locked grooves and bite-sized drum solos before steering the song into its second half.
“Tom Sawyer” (Rio, 2002)
For many fans, this is the one—and not just because it opens Rush’s most beloved album, 1981’s Moving Pictures. For Peart, “Tom Sawyer” was the moment when the band’s identity, both as disparate musicians and as a group, began to coalesce. “I will never get tired of playing ‘Tom Sawyer,’ because it’s always difficult to play right,” he said in 2012. “And any time I do play it right, I feel good.” In the original music video, Peart looks like a madman compared to his stoic bandmates, as he ferociously thrashes the cymbals. In contrast, this drum-cam footage from 2002 displays the intense focus Peart brought to his craft: He merely scowls as he flawlessly executes one of most air-drummed sequences in rock history.
“La Villa Strangiato” (Rio, 2002)
“La Villa Strangiato” is a marathon, with dynamic peaks and valleys that pushed Rush to their limits. (“That was a song where I would have to say our ideas exceeded our ability to play them,” Geddy Lee admitted in 2018). But Peart made it look like a walk in the park, as shown in this clip from the final gig of Rush’s Vapor Trails comeback tour. The notion of drums as a lead instrument can often lead to disjointed musical transitions, players falling out of lockstep as the backbeat vanishes, but just look at 4:06, where Peart’s drums become an extension of Alex Lifeson’s guitar arpeggios.
“Der Trommler” (Frankfurt, 2004)
Neil Peart solos, and the massive drum kits on which he played them, have become something of a rock cliche—just ask anyone who’s played with a drummer who truly believes they need that extra floor tom or splash cymbal. During Rush’s synthesizer-heavy period in the ’80s, Peart integrated sample pads into his ever-evolving setup, which gave him both tonal variety and melodic options. As the band moved into the new millennium, he began to use Roland’s V-Drum pads, which put a “virtual orchestra” at the tips of his drumsticks. There are dozens of jaw-dropping Peart solos from throughout the years, but this clip from Rush’s 30th anniversary tour—the dryly titled “Der Trommler” (“The Drummer”)—remains a fan favorite.
After Rush’s 40th anniversary tour in 2015, Peart announced his retirement from professional drumming, and thus brought Rush to a close. Fans hoped for a comeback, but Geddy Lee confirmed that the band was done in a 2018 interview. “Neil was struggling throughout [the R40 tour] to play at his peak, because of physical ailments and other things that were going on with him,” he said. “And he is a perfectionist, and he did not want to go out and do anything less than what people expected of him. That’s what drove him his whole career, and that’s the way he wanted to go out, and I totally respect that.”
If Peart was lagging at all on that last tour, it didn’t show. In this fan-shot clip of “Subdivisions,” from 1982’s Signals, he remains the stalwart timekeeper, rolls and ride-cymbal flourishes firmly locked into place. No two sections here are alike, and his shift from understated backbeats to four-on-the-floor snare hits propels the power trio forward. One of Rush’s more restrained songs, “Subdivisions” shows how Peart’s brilliance wasn’t defined solely by flashy fills and wonky time signature change-ups.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork