I’ve been a Rush fan for quite a few years, even when I was only familiar with Tom Sawyer. As a drummer, I appreciated Neil Peart’s skill and talent, and Moving Pictures remains one of my favorite albums of all time. After I saw them in Phoenix this July as part of the R40 tour, I went out and finished up my collection of Rush albums. Since then, I’ve quickly embraced them as my favorite band (they were previously number 2 — sorry Styx!). There are few songs of theirs I don’t like, and not only do I still massively appreciate Neil Peart’s skill, I’ve also grown to recognize that Geddy Lee is perhaps the best bassist of all time, and Alex Lifeson is a pretty skilled guitarist in his own right. Peart’s lyrics are weirdly deep and poetic for a rock band, and Lee’s strange, acquired-taste voice firmly cement them as a rock band for nerds. So, yeah, I really like them. They have a 12-minute song about Sauron, for God’s sake.
The R40 Live album was an instant buy for me, not only because I went to the show, but because Rush’s live albums have a tendency to be generally very good. Since their inception, they’ve released a live album after every four major releases, and they all stand out for being really well-done. All the World’s a Stage has one of the few live recordings of the criminally underplayed Bastille Day. Exit … Stage Left, in addition to being a Snagglepuss reference, ends with a great performance of the instrumental La Villa Strangiato. I love A Show of Hands, as a firm believer that 80’s Rush is the best Rush, and Different Stages is the only one with a full performance of 2112.
So what is it that makes R40 Live special? It’s insanely comprehensive, and remarkably good for essentially being a bunch of Canadians in their 60’s playing an eclectic collection of nerdy songs, some of which are stupid long, for 3 hours. The shtick of the R40 tour was that the trio went through their extensive discography in reverse chronological order, and the album pretty much sticks to that, with the exception of a few bonus tracks at the end.
The thing about the R40 tour was that Rush has a crazy amount of music to pull from, and as such there were several versions of the concert. That being the case, there were a few songs that I didn’t hear on my leg of the tour, and getting to hear them on the album is pretty cool.
Oddly enough, Clockwork Angels got a ton of representation on the tour, as the most recent album, but it also seemed like it was the stuff that Geddy had the hardest time singing. They open up with The Anarchist, which was a great choice, since the drum intro to that song is fantastic. They follow that up with either The Wreckers (which was what I saw) or Clockwork Angels (the song), and then finish up that section with Headlong Flight, featuring one of a couple truly impressive drum solos in the middle.
The songs sound great musically, but on Headlong Flight especially, Geddy is really hard to understand. This is kind of odd, as it was their most recent release and his voice hasn’t changed that much since then. He’s still able to hit the high notes like a boss, but he seems to sacrifice intelligibility for tone at times. I can give him a pass, though, considering his bass work is still as good as it ever was.
They follow that up with two tracks from 2007’s Snakes and Arrows, and pick arguably the two good songs from that release: the opener Far Cry, and the instrumental The Main Monkey Business. Both are great, and the first in particular gives Geddy a chance to regain some lost vocal cred.
Then they move onto 2002’s Vapor Trails with either How It Is (what I saw) or One Little Victory. I really love both of these tracks, and I’d even go so far as to say How It Is actually sounds better on R40 Live than it does on its original album release, both VT and VT Remixed. The second one in particular sounded spectacular, with the drums and guitar benefiting greatly from the acoustics of the venue, and Geddy going into his falsetto for perhaps the only song of the show (considering the distinct — but not surprising — lack of Freewill).
One thing I noticed about the three albums of the 2000’s was that the band kind of fell into the ‘loudness war’ mentality of the period and made it a bit more difficult to pick out particular tunes or licks on the guitar and bass. The concert actually made that a lot better, given the presence of only one instrument per band member (and supplemental audio used pretty much exclusively for backing vocals), and songs like The Wreckers really sounded great melodically.
They go back a decade for Animate from 1993’s Counterparts, and then another two years for an awesome rendition of Roll the Bones, which I think Geddy might actually sing better now then he did 25 years ago. Plus, there was a hilarious video overlain during the “rap” portion of the song that featured Peter Dinklage, which is always a plus.
Then they go back another seven years (skipping over three albums in the process) for either Between the Wheels or Distant Early Warning. Both sound really good, but I think Between the Wheels is probably my personal choice, which works out, since that’s what they did in Phoenix.
After that came something a little different, a song from 1982’s Signals which they’ve never actually performed live before: Losing It. They only did this one in their two shows in Toronto, which is a damn shame, because I really dig that song. Each show featured a different guest violinist, either Ben Mink (who played on the actual record), or Jonathan Dinklage (brother of the aforementioned Peter Dinklage). What’s cool about the R40 Live album is that it actually includes both versions of the track, and they both sound great. After that, they do another one from that album, one of my absolute favorites, Subdivisions, on which the synths in particular stand out as really clear-sounding.
After intermission, they come back with (shocker!) Tom Sawyer, and kill the hell out of it. Then they actually branch off and do one of three different tunes: The Camera Eye (what I saw live), Red Barchetta, or YYZ. Each of these sounds just spectacular, and it’s no surprise that Moving Pictures gets so much representation– it’s pretty much universally agreed to be their best album. Again, the live album includes all of these songs, which is pretty cool, since Red Barchetta and YYZ are just too good.
Then comes The Spirit of Radio off of 1980’s Permanent Waves, which I was excited to see live and participate in the obligatory screaming that comes after the “concert hall” line. The guitar in particular stood out here. Apparently, on shows where they played YYZ they played Natural Science after that, and it’s a pretty good performance. Admittedly, I’ve never been able to get much into that song, but they did it justice nonetheless. After that was Jacob’s Ladder, bringing the total songs from that album to 3, and while it’s kind of a goofy song to hear, the light show that accompanied it at the concert was thoroughly amazing.
After that came select chunks of Cygnus X-1, an enormous song spanning two albums, in the middle of which was a spectacular and long drum solo. Following that was Closer to the Heart (or “A Closet in Your House”, as Alex Lifeson sometimes refers to it), which was probably the other song on which I didn’t think Geddy sounded all that great. You can forgive him, though, since that song came out when he was 24.
They followed that up with my favorite Rush song of all time, Xanadu, and went whole hog on that 11-minute piece. Both Lee and Lifeson sported double-necks, and Neil Peart rocked the hell out of some chimes, bells, and cowbells. It sounds amazing, and it was amazing to see. They then did a truncated version of 2112, shifted down a few steps to accommodate Geddy’s voice, and that, too, is thoroughly awesome.
After that was the last portion of the show, with a medley of Lakeside Park (the only representation Caress of Steel got), and Anthem (the only representation FBN got). They ended the show with a medley of two songs from their very first, self-titled album, What You’re Doing, and finally, Working Man, which actually ended with a 10-second riff from Garden Road, a single they wrote just after Neil Peart joined the band but never actually included on an album proper. Fun fact, there.
The whole album comes out to a whopping 29 tracks, and the video accompanying it is really well-directed. I haven’t seen every song, but from what I can tell, it’s a really nice job. For fans of the band, this is a must-buy. For the uninitiated, it’s probably not the first live album I’d recommend, but it’s still a veritable miracle that so much was packed into one show.
I will say, there were some notable absences, despite the 3-hour length of the show. The Big Money, Force Ten, Show Don’t Tell, and Test for Echo were all absent, as were their respective albums. I was rather disappointed by this, as I think there’s a lot of great stuff on Power Windows, Hold Your Fire, and Presto. The last one doesn’t surprise me too much, as Test for Echo is pretty much agreed to be the worst of their albums (personally I’d put it above Snakes and Arrows), but there are still some good tracks on there like the title track and Driven.
That said, it’s understandable that they couldn’t include everything. Despite that, it was still an excellent show, and a really solid live album. Recommended.