R40 Live


Anthem, 2015


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Rush is one of those bands whose greatness I have always recognized and respected, without becoming a superfan.

They were the essence of anti-cool; the least hip group ever to sell out arenas, a trio of ambitious iconoclasts who started out as garage-rockers with a Led Zeppelin fixation, evolved into purveyors of knotty, cerebral progressive rock, graduated to increasingly synth-heavy melodic hard rock, and finished up as widely-revered icons of a bygone era. The trio of Geddy Lee (lead vocals, bass, keyboards), Alex Lifeson (guitars & backing vocals) and Neil Peart (drums & lyrics) persevered through 40 years of musical evolution and change while retaining the same three-man lineup and the same quirky sense of humor, even as they endured the vicissitudes of the music industry and a series of personal tragedies.

I was drawn to Geddy Lee’s recent memoir My Effin’ Life for a number of reasons, but mainly two: the story of the band Rush is an epic one worthy of first-person documentation, and Lee is the son of Holocaust survivors, which inevitably affected his life in ways I was interested in learning about for my own reasons. That absorbing read led me to this purchase, of the live triple-CD set chronicling the hometown Toronto stop on what would turn out to be the band’s final tour, the relatively brief 35-show R40 tour of summer 2015.

Lee maintains that the band was at the pinnacle of its musical powers during said tour, while acknowledging that age was taking its inevitable toll on both of his bandmates, with arthritis, tendinitis and other hard truths of aging making their physically demanding 2.5-hour shows as much an endurance contest as a musical exercise. While R40 Live demonstrates a band still playing at an extraordinarily high level, one suspects Peart was wise to insist on walking away afterwards, and not just because of his own desire to end the toll the work was taking on his body. After many years of sustained musical excellence, by 2015 cracks were beginning to show.

For their R40 tour Rush took the unique and clever approach of sequencing their setlist in reverse chronological order, taking this a step further by initially packing the stage with individual elements of many of the elaborate stage sets the band had employed over previous tours. As the evening progressed, the band working its way backward through time, pieces of set dressing were removed era by era until the final encores returned the band to their original state: three guys with guitar, bass and drums playing on a bare stage, Lee’s lone bass amp propped precariously on a pair of institutional chairs like those found in the public school gyms that housed the band’s earliest performances.

The show opens with a quartet of songs from 2012’s Clockwork Angels and 2007’s Snakes & Arrows that illustrate both the strengths and the weaknesses of those latter-day albums. Do they make a big noise? You betcha! Are there riffs and choruses? Here and there. But mostly there’s just a series of amped-up jams that never go anywhere particularly memorable, framed within a muddy mix that makes it hard to pick out individual performances. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The fact that Snakes instrumental “The Main Monkey Business” is the early highlight also points to an issue I had not anticipated. I’ve been entertained by Lee’s anything-but-ordinary voice for decades, from the wailing-banshee days of Fly By Night to his more melodious and nuanced work in the ’80s and ’90s. On R40, it’s apparent that Lee’s vocal range has been significantly diminished by age, with the result that he sometimes struggles to hit notes, sometimes dodges them entirely, and occasionally falls far off pitch.

That said, Lee, Lifeson and Peart battle Father Time like the warriors they are, with the group’s home crowd eating up every minute of it. It’s a treat to hear the rarely-played “How It Is,” and they power through “Animate,” but the next real highlight for me was “Roll The Bones,” the underappreciated title track of its underappreciated 1991 album. And then they make the bold move of jumping back seven years and three largely forgettable late-’80s albums to the closing track from 1984’s Grace Under Pressure, the pulsing, shape-shifting “Between The Wheels.”

Having arrived at the consensus heart of the Rush catalog—a consensus of which I am a member—the boys deliver another surprise, the live debut of Signals’ “Losing It,” featuring special guest and longtime friend of the band Ben Mink on electric violin; it’s an emphatic performance that elevates the song. First set closer “Subdivisions” follows with a powerful rendition of one of the strongest numbers the band ever recorded.

The second set opens with a pair of the group’s best-known tracks from their high-water mark album Moving Pictures (1981). “Tom Sawyer” has the unfortunate distinction of pairing powerhouse instrumental performances with one of Lee’s more problematic vocal efforts. The good news is that they follow this by absolutely nailing the superb instrumental “YYZ,” named for Toronto’s airport code.

Permanent Waves (1980) is well-represented with a twisting, turning, ebullient “The Spirit Of Radio” followed by enthusiastic performances of a pair of relatively deep cuts in “Natural Science” and “Jacob’s Ladder.” A clever mashup pairs the introductory segment of “Cygnus X-1 Part II” from Hemispheres with its counterpart from predecessor “Cygnus X-1,” with the latter interrupted by a high-spirited four-minute drum solo (gulp) from Peart. This bit of over-the-top prog-ness is followed by lighter-snapping ballad “Closer To The Heart” and a lively rendition of early nugget “Xanadu.”

The familiar abridged 12-minute version of the band’s first great epic, the dystopian fantasy-themed 20-minute prog opus “2112,” makes for a superb regular set closer, performed with energy and flair, with Lifeson in particular demonstrating his lasting enthusiasm for its heaviness and dynamics. The encores take the band all the way back to the beginning, pairing first “Lakeside Park” (from Caress of Steel) with “Anthem” (from Fly By Night), and then “What You’re Doing” with “Working Man” both taken from the group’s first, self-titled (and only Peart-less) album. The encores find Lee doing battle at the mic again, straining to hit a 21-year-old’s notes with a 61-year-old’s vocal cords.

This triple-CD set includes six bonus tracks that were not played in Toronto, but made their way into the setlist at various points on the R40 tour—including punchy takes on “One Little Victory,” “Distant Early Warning,” and “Red Barchetta,” plus evocative mini-epic “The Camera Eye.” This allows R40 Live to offer both a snapshot of a single evening and a comprehensive chronicle of the band’s final tour.

Overall, R40 Live showcases a band that, while still capable of exceptional musicianship, was beginning to show inevitable signs of wear and tear. Lee’s reluctance ahead of time to call this the group’s final tour is understandable—quitting while you’re still on top is both counter-intuitive and a notoriously difficult target to hit—but the wisdom of Peart’s decision to walk away after this tour feels apparent at the margins of this otherwise very strong album, which effectively captures both the musical and chronological span of Rush’s remarkable career.

Rating: B

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