My all-time favourite band, Rush, just released their latest album – the live Time Machine 2011: Live in Cleveland. I’ve listened to it (via Rdio) and I have a question: When did Rush become old? I’m serious. They definitely sound old now, but when did that start? Were they aging before my eyes (or ears) and I just didn’t notice?
So I decided to go back over Rush’s nine (!) live albums and look for signs of aging. Here’s what I found: (Note that this is an auditory exercise only. I did not view the DVDs of those concerts released on video. And I didn’t play all the albums through, either – I’m getting on in years myself, you know.)
1. All the World’s a Stage (1976). In some ways, this is my favourite Rush live album. Their legendary earnestness is on full display here, and it’s oddly endearing, somehow. I get the same vibe from the band here that I get from The Runaways – the music is loud, but the band sounds like it’s REALLY trying hard to, well, do a good job. Certainly they don’t sound old at all. Good thing, as I think they were about 14 years old at the time. Kidding. A bit.
2. Exit…Stage Left (1981). (Remind me to do a post on Rush album names someday.) This is a pretty good live album, too. Maybe Rush’s best. Its biggest failing is a horrible mix that sounds incredibly muddy. I think that Alex Lifeson’s solo on Red Barchetta is spot-on to the studio version, but you kinda have to take it on faith. Playing the classical guitar intro to La Villa Strangiato on electric guitar took balls and it almost comes off perfectly. No signs of aging here.
3. Grace Under Pressure Tour (1984, but released only in 2006). I’m going to pass on this one. I have only seen the concert on DVD, never listened to the CD. Not a great period in Rush history, though.
4. A Show of Hands (1989). I guess they remembered way back in ’81 when the mix was so bottom-endy, and made sure they didn’t make that mistake again. Except they kinda over-corrected. Some of this live album doesn’t even sound live, the recording is so good. Add to that the fact that Rush like to re-create the studio versions of their songs note-for-note and you get a nice collection of Rush songs, but not necessarily a nice live album. Still sounding pretty young, though. (I saw them two nights running in St. John’s in 1988. Went the first night with my best friend and you can actually see him [but not me, alas] waiting in line outside Memorial Stadium in the “Rush hits St. John’s” Easter egg clip on the R30 DVD.)
5. Different Stages (1998). GEEZER ALERT! GEEZER ALERT! (Geez, you know your fave band is old when they have three consecutive live albums released over an almost 20-year span.) Well, first signs of aging definitely showing up here. The best Rush music manages to combine power with agility and a certain lightness (kind of like Muhammad Ali, but replace “sting like a bee” with “hit you like a 2 X 4”). Listen to the studio versions of La Villa Strangiato, Freewill, Natural Science, YYZ, The Camera Eye (to name just a few). All the elements of the Rush signature sound (Lifeson’s guitar [especially the chord voicings], Geddy Lee’s bass and Neil Peart’s drumming) come together in these songs to make music that is heavy, but incredibly light on its feet. Well, that is definitely starting to disappear on Different Stages. The band on that album is starting to sound, well, a bit ponderous. The agility is going. The last main section of Natural Science now seems to slow to a crawl (where Lifeson’s chords in the studio version almost dance).
6. Rush in Rio (2003). On DVD, the band seemed to turn back the clock in Brazil. After the long break from touring following the tragic deaths of Peart’s daughter and wife less than a year apart in 1997-98, the band seems rejuvenated. At least they do on the DVD. The CD version of the concert unfortunately still betrays that ponderousness that I described above. It doesn’t help that the production is ridiculously dense, hiding all detail behind a wall of sound. And it’s the detail that makes Rush, well, Rush. In addition, Lee’s voice is losing the upper register (first noticed on Different Stages, actually) and his attempts to continue to sing as on the studio versions are sometimes distracting.
7. R30: 30th Anniversary World Tour (2005). I saw Rush on this tour when they stopped in Montreal (where I then lived). Had a total blast. But, of course, the concert experience is only partly (even minorly) about the music itself. Removed from the lights, the crowd, the experience, listening on CD is a different story. Not much to add to what you I said above for the last couple of live albums. Rush are sounding more and more like strangers to their own music. Sheer volume is increasingly replacing subtlety.
8. Snakes and Arrows Live (2008). Depressingly more of the same, and added to it the worst-sounding Rush live disc since Exit…Stage Left. The songs sound like they’ve vibrated themselves to bits inside your stereo and the pieces are spilling willy-nilly out of your speakers. What’s funny is that they can still play all the tricky bits, it’s just that the effort to play all the bits perfectly is so great that the song gets lost. And because so many of Rush’s songs are made up of different sections stitched together, it’s all too easy to lose the thread.
9. Which brings us to Time Machine 2011 (2011, natch). The band is in full-fledged geezerhood by this point. Everything I said about the last couple of live albums, times 10. Listen to Geddy Lee “sing” Time Stand Still – what, exactly, is up with that? (He actually fares better in some Rush chestnuts that are, paradoxically, in a higher register.) Us fans have to content ourselves with seeing how close Lifeson can get to the studio version on the Subdivisions solo and whether he can nail the last part of the Camera Eye solo. (The fact that he does both very well is even more depressing, in a way.) I won’t say much about Peart’s drum solo (partly because I usually skip them anyway), except to note that he will need about 20 more years of jazz lessons before he can pull off swing-era standards like Love for Sale.
Well, that’s about all I have the stomach for. I’m going to go back to listening to my Rush playlist (it contains all the albums from A Farewell to Kings through Moving Pictures, with the live version of By-Tor and the Snow Dog from All the World’s a Stage thrown in) and thinking about the good old days…