[29 April 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There aren’t many bands that can get away with releasing a new live album after every tour, but considering the ravenous appetite Rush’s fans have for new releases, it’s easy to understand why the Canadian legends have put out eight such recordings. Fascinatingly enough, in the last dozen years they’ve released no fewer than five live albums and three live DVD collections, compared to just three studio albums. Of course, the motivation behind each new live document is driven by the irrefutable fact that Rush fans will buy a CD or DVD with the umpteenth recordings of “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit of Radio”. That said, though, there’s not a lick of cynicism or calculatedness in their actions; they’re deeply appreciative of the continued support, are fully aware that the new studio albums are becoming more and more infrequent, and are more than willing to treat their fans to something every year.
Besides, with 18 albums to draw from, it’s easy for Rush to keep things fresh, tinkering with the setlist with each new tour, so although Snakes & Arrows Live is the third multi-CD live album in the last five years, it’s markedly different from 2003’s sprawling Rush in Rio and 2005’s R30. Unlike the palpable energy of the Rush in Rio performance and R30‘s fun career retrospective, Snakes & Arrows Live, which was recorded over a two-night stand in Rotterdam, Holland in October of 2007, sees the band placing strong emphasis on their remarkable 2007 album Snakes and Arrows. Almost similar to Iron Maiden’s inspired decision to perform A Matter of Life and Death in its entirety in 2006, the trio of bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drumming great Neil Peart refuse to become a predictable oldies act, performing nine of the record’s 13 songs. Of course, considering how the band routinely plays shows in the two and a half to three hour range, they can easily get away with such a stunt and still toss out plenty of classics for the oldsters in the crowd, but Snakes & Arrows Live shows that they have so much confidence in their new music that they’re willing to challenge their fans by having the new material form the core of the live set.
Clearly the threesome were thrilled to finally have some new music to play, and it’s no surprise that the performances of the nine new tracks, which are shrewdly placed right in the middle of the 27-song set, are the highlights of the new live album. “The Larger Bowl” is one of the more compelling, acoustic guitar-tinged Rush tunes in recent memory, highlighted by a shimmering solo by Lifeson. Conversely, “Far Cry” and “Spindrift” sound fantastic performed in concert, the band undoubtedly relishing the heavy tone and massive groove of both songs. Meanwhile, “Workin’ Them Angels”, “Armor and Sword”, and “The Way the Wind Blows” are three of the album’s finest tracks, and translate extraordinarily well live, as Lifeson, whose guitar work was remarkable on the album, shows his range, providing textured melodies and not just down-tuned chords, shifting to acoustic guitar and mandolin with ease. The three instrumentals are also superb: Lifeson’s “Hope” is a gorgeous respite from the prog rock intricacy, Lee’s bassline during “Malignant Narcissism” is ferocious, and Peart’s increasing interest in African rhythms rises to the fore on “The Main Monkey Business”.
As for the old stuff, we get plenty of nuggets that have been taken out and dusted off. Underrated gem “Entre Nous” and the lengthy, adventurous “Natural Science”, both from 1980’s Permanent Waves, sound tremendous, the latter especially. The reggae-tinged “Digital Man”, a standout from 1982’s Signals, makes its first ever appearance on a live album, Peart’s skittering rhythms and Lifeson’s slashing chords, reminiscent of new wave, both a refreshing change of pace. In addition, it’s great to hear such songs as “Witch Hunt”, “Circumstances”, and “A Passage to Bangkok” given a good contemporary spit and polish.
And sure, the concert staples are as present as ever, but damn, if they’re not thrilling to hear time and again. The ebullient melodies and riffs of “Limelight” get the album off to a rousing start, “Subdivisions” continues to be one of the most affecting tracks in the Rush discography, the paranoia hinted at in “Distant Early Warning” seems eerily appropriate today, energetic Vapor Trails highlight “One Little Victory” is quickly turning into a fan favorite, and of course, “The Spirit of Radio”, “Tom Sawyer”, and classic instrumental “YYZ” bring the festivities to a rousing climax. The new stuff scorches, the rarities are fun to hear, the classics still send chills up the spine, and Lee, Lifeson, and Peart still perform with the same focus, intensity, and self-deprecating humor as they always have. What else could a Rush fan want?