Rush used to be quite careful about releasing live recordings. The first two decades of their career saw only four live albums that captured the band after various milestones. First was the long-form proggy years of songs that went on for 18 to 20 minutes, then it was the hard rock years where the songs were shorter, but still retained their signature sound. Then, it was the synth years of the ’80s, and finally they capped the end of the ’90s with a kind of pastiche of songs that showcased how far they had come from their beginnings in 1974.
Since the band resurfaced in 2002 with the release of Vapor Trails, Rush has released more live album than studio recordings. To wit: Rush In Rio, R30 30th Anniversary Tour, Snakes & Arrows Live, Rush: Time Machine 2011: Live in Cleveland, oh and don’t forget the release of the Grace Under Pressure Tour in 2006. The band seemed to be giving The Grateful Dead a run for its money for the past 10 years, so after all this live material, it begs the question: do we really need another live Rush album? Well, yes and no. Rush was never known as a band that improvised. Indeed, one of my favorite quote was from a New York Times review of one of their show in the ’90s where the reviewer said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Seeing Rush live has about as much improvisation as open heart surgery.” The band always prided themselves in recreating their studio sound live, so you could follow them from town to town on any given tour and hear “Tom Sawyer” played in a manner that’s pretty close what Rush recorded at Le Studio in 1980. So, to answer my question about whether we need another live record, the answer is that no we probably don’t need anymore live versions of “Tom Sawyer,” but The Clockwork Angels tour was one that showcased a large chunk of their studio album, Clockwork Angels in one set. That was a ballsy move. And yes, it’s important to capture that ballsy move for posterity.
For a band as old (yes, I said old) as Rush, they could take victory lap after victory lap and “play the hits” for years with REO Speedwagon or Styx and make good money on some kind summer package tour. But these guys are true believers in progressive rock. That is to say, if you’re a progressive rock band, you gotta keep pushing yourself to get better, get out of your comfort zone, and tread down new musical paths. In short, you have to progress.
That’s exactly what Rush did with Clockwork Angels. It’s a stunningly great late-career record that ranks as one of the best in their catalogue. Sure, there were some songs on the record that were less than stellar, but overall it demonstrated that bands do not need to rest on their laurels as they get older. So with the release of the DVD (and CD) of Rush: Clockwork Angels Tour, the band put together an eclectic set of music that was heavy on the deeper cuts of their ’80s output in the first set and contrasted it with their new songs in the second set. Hearing “Grand Designs,” “Territories,” The Body Electric,” “Middletown Dreams,” and “Manhattan Project” woven into heavy hitters like “The Analog Kid,” “The Big Money,” and “Subdivisions” was quite a treat — and a trip down memory lane. The ’80s were both a great time and difficult time for Rush. Many of their older fans weren’t too thrilled about their more pop/synth sound of the New Wave era. However, for some fans of the band (those who connected with them from Permanent Waves onward) the ’80s allowed Rush to showcase their accomplished playing within the structure and style of what was then a contemporary musical genre. Gone were the long-form epics in favor of more compact and keyboard-heavy songs. The ’80s was also the decade where Rush went from outlier to mainstream rockers (you can thank “Tom Sawyer” for that). So for better or worse, it was important for the band to showcase some of the deeper cuts from Power Windows because that album was the one that signaled the band was locked into this new “synth” direction — for a while, at least. Closing out the set with “Far Cry” (From Snakes & Arrows) brought the audience to a natural transition point: it foreshadowed the new stuff that was coming.
The songs from Clockwork Angels are strong, but what made the live performance better was the addition of a string section that accompanied the band on all the songs. Strings? Yeah, it sounds weird, but it totally worked because the addition of the new players was a natural enhancement to the music — and not a gimmick like so many rock bands playing with symphonies. Perhaps the string section made Peart, Lee and Lifeson really step up their game, because I noticed that they played better than they did in the first set. Where Geddy Lee seemed to struggle to hit the notes in the first half of the show, he was more relaxed and in command of his vocals during all of the Clockwork Angels songs. The band, always a tight trio, played even tighter in the second set. They were clearly enjoying the new songs and played them with as much élan as some audience members react when the band busts out one of their classics.
The second disc of the DVD is packed with extras that include a sound check recording of “Limelight,” three songs that were rotated in and out of the set list during the tour, a short documentary, the tour films that played at the intermission and at the end of the show and few other things that made it well worth the $25 price I paid at Best Buy. Oh and I got a T-shirt, too!
For dedicated Rush fans (like me), I usually buy whatever they put out, but if I were to recommend live DVDs to a casual fan, I would say to get three: Rush in Rio, Time Machine 2011: Live in Cleveland, and Rush: Clockwork Angels Tour. The first for the Brazilian audience who sang along with every song, the second because the set was a good sampling of their 30 plus year output (and you get Moving Pictures played live in its entirety), and the third for an example of how 60 year olds can still rock the house with new music that doesn’t suck.