[14 January 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For some strange reason, Rush was rather preoccupied with poultry during the year-long tour in support of their 18th album Snakes & Arrows. Several chicken references occur during the comedic intro shorts on the video screens. Bassist Geddy Lee would wryly announce to the crowd, “We’re no spring chickens.” And most visibly, in place of bass cabinets behind him (ear monitors having since made the bulky equipment redundant), there were three big, glowing chicken roasters full of dozens of rotating chickens, which would be basted periodically during the show by a roadie, often dressed as, you guessed it, a chicken.
That kind of absurd humor has always been a part of the Rush experience from album-liner notes to tour-book essays to the live show itself, and the progressive rock trio’s ability to poke fun at itself adds some much-needed levity to a musical genre that far too often takes itself too seriously. That lightheartedness is front and center on Snakes and Arrows Live. Ever since the release of 2003’s spectacular Rush in Rio, the band has perfected the concert DVD medium, and their fourth DVD (and first release on Blu-Ray) continues its impressive run of guaranteed fan-pleasers.
Filmed and recorded over the course of two nights at Rotterdam, Holland’s Ahoy arena, the three-disc set showcases the Canadians in the midst of a creative rebirth. Easily the best album since 1990’s Presto, Snakes & Arrows had Rush sounding invigorated, and it certainly translates to the live show, as the more than two-and-a-half-hour set places heavy emphasis on the new record, with nine tracks being performed. This is a band immensely proud of their album, and their enthusiasm for the new material is likely the reason directors Pierre and François Lamoureux decided to focus more on the interaction between Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer Neil Peart more than ever before. Beautifully lit and shot, the camera angles are tight but never intrusive, providing fans a geek’s eye view of the performance, whether it’s Lee’s synth twiddling, Lifeson’s expressive solos, or Peart’s inimitable drumming.
In fact, the biggest perk on Snakes & Arrows Live is just how close a look we get of Peart’s performance. On past concert videos and DVDs dating back to the 1980s, Peart, always a perfectionist and somewhat of a fusspot, never allowed hand-held cameras anywhere near his kit, so on DVDs like Rush in Rio and R30, film crews were forced to use static cameras behind and above his elaborate drum kit. Here, though, Peart seems to have softened his stance somewhat, and viewers are afforded fantastic glimpses of the legendary drummer in action, especially in his enthralling solo “Der Slagwerker”, the camera operator even audaciously capturing Peart through the transparent skin of his floor tom.
In addition to the nine new songs performed, the rest of the set list is outstanding: Rush carts out rarely performed songs such as “Entre Nous”, “Natural Science”, “Circumstances” and “Witch Hunt” alongside such staples as “The Spirit of Radio” and “Limelight”. As for the highlights, Grace Under Pressure obscurity “Between the Wheels” sounds even better live, as Lifeson’s ominous riffs offset Lee’s new wave synths. 2007’s “Far Cry” proves absolutely scorching, and the classic “Tom Sawyer” is preluded by an hilarious intro by the characters of South Park. For 2008’s second leg of the tour, the band tweaked the set list a bit for the fans, adding Presto‘s “Ghost of a Chance” and fan faves “The Trees”, “Red Barchetta” and “221 / The Temples of Syrinx”, and to their credit, they made sure those tracks were captured for posterity as well, filming the songs in Atlanta this past spring. Each are presented on the set’s third disc.
In addition to being superbly shot, the audio sounds as excellent as you’d expect: The surround mix by Lifeson and Richard Chycki proves tasteful and never overemphasizes the crowd noise. Aside from the Atlanta performances, the extras remain minimal, though still enjoyable, including the surreal What’s That Smell short used on the 2008 leg (with plenty more chicken references), alternate edits of a few songs and a previously unreleased performance of “Red Sector A” from 2005’s R30 tour. Snakes and Arrows Live simply delivers the goods to Rush fans yet again, providing a perfect memento for anyone who saw the band during its most recent tour and a portrait of a trio who, after more than three decades, still sounds as relevant and potent as ever.