R40 Live is an entertaining listen throughout, especially if you’re already a die-hard Rush fan (and let’s face it, this set will hardly appeal at all to those who aren’t).
Does the world really need yet another live album by Rush? After all, they’ve released at least 10 already. In recent years they’ve issued a new live set to commemorate each major tour, with the most recent, Clockwork Angels Tour, coming a mere two years ago. For most bands the answer would be “no”, but then again Rush isn’t like any other band, and this tour wasn’t like any of their prior outings. Over this past year they celebrated their 40th anniversary, and it was most probably their final major tour. Under those circumstances, yet another Rush live collection is more than welcome. Hell, who am I kidding. None of that really matters. It’s Rush, and Rush kicks ass, and OF COURSE another live album is welcome, regardless of the circumstances.
R40 Live finds the band in their home country, performing before an ecstatic crowd over two nights in Toronto. Sprawled over three CDs and a DVD, the set list is reverse chronology, so it begins with two tracks from their stellar 2012 release Clockwork Angels and ends with their breakthrough classic “Working Man”. They curiously tack on a several bonus tracks at the end that could have easily been mixed in with the rest of the show so that they aren’t out of place, but that’s a minor quibble.
It’s an entertaining listen throughout, especially if you’re already a die-hard Rush fan (and let’s face it, this set will hardly appeal at all to those who aren’t). There are songs here that have never appeared on a Rush live album before. In fact, “Losing It”, a track from their 1982 album Signals, made its live debut on this tour. The band brought in violinist Ben Mink to perform on the song as he did on the studio version, and the result is an absolute thrill. It works so well it’s hard to understand why they’ve never played it before. “How It Is”, from 2002’s Vapor Trails , is another track the band had never played live prior to this tour. They also revisit “Jacob’s Ladder”, which hadn’t been part of the band’s set since 1980.
Of course, some songs are pretty much always part of their set, and no matter how many times the band plays them they never get old. “Tom Sawyer”, for instance -- that opening wave of synths and drums is still magic. It’s never short of amazing to watch Neil Peart’s extraordinary drumwork on the song (the DVD that comes with the set is well worth watching). The instrumental “YYZ” is as much a herculean workout as ever, and the band shows that even in their ‘60s they are more than up to the task of performing the immensely demanding classic. Two other favorites from Moving Pictures are also featured: “Red Barchetta” and the 10-minute epic “The Camera Eye”. “Spirit of the Radio” is a crowd-pleaser as always, and those thick waves of synth on “Subdivisions” sound as epic as ever. “Animate”, from the band’s excellent 1991 album Counterparts, emanates ferocious power.
The band explores their progressive rock roots on the long, breathtaking “Xanadu” and their old warhorse “2112”, without which no Rush show would be complete. The fans certainly never tire of it, based on the ecstatic reaction from the audience. The trio seems to feed off the crowd’s manic energy. After the end of the final encore of “What You’re Doing”/”Working Man”, two tracks from the band’s 1974 self-titled debut, the band offers a bonus section of tracks from various segments of their career.
“One Little Victory” is a rush of pure adrenaline. “Distant Early Warning” captures all the menace of the cold war era with brooding synths and an aura of tension and anxiety.
Rush is not the type of band that would go out on stage and give less than what they know their audience expects -- they are consummate professionals and every move they make is carefully considered. Sure enough they are as tight as ever on R40 Live. It’s amazing to sit back and listen to this CD and realize that all of the sounds are generated by these three remarkable musicians. Other bands have extra musicians hiding in the wings to help augment their sound -- not so with Rush. Despite dealing with chronic tendinitis, Neil Peart remains an absolute machine -- there’s no other explanation for his unique combination of ultra-precision and power (check out his electrifying drum solo on “Cygnus X-1/The Story So Far”). Alex Lifeson shreds like nobody’s business, even as he battles through arthritis. Geddy Lee can still mesmerize with his wildly fluid bass parts. His vocals do sound strained at times and he can’t quite hit all the high notes like he used to (“Natural Science” is particularly rough), but he’s a trooper -- many of the songs are at or near his breaking point, but Lee still gives his all and makes the songs work as well as he can despite the inevitable changes in his voice wrought by time and decades of touring.
Sure, one could quibble over the setlist on R40 Live, but given Rush’s vast discography it is of course impossible for them to represent all of their albums, and there indeed are big chunks of their catalog that they skip over. But the beauty of having so many live releases is that if they don’t touch on an album on R40 Live -- Presto, for instance -- odds are that they’ve covered it on a prior live release. Running alongside their studio albums, starting with the 1976 classic All The World’s a Stage, Rush has accumulated an extensive library of live material for fans to enjoy as counterparts to their studio works.
Rush is one of rock music’s enduring powerhouses. They’ve defied trends, critics who didn’t take them seriously (and still don’t), and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who blithely ignored them for as long as they could until it became an embarrassment and they finally inducted them in 2013. They’ve persevered in the face of immense personal tragedy, and the effects of age and the impact that the decades of touring and recording have had on their health. Their fans are among the most loyal in rock, and it’s easy to understand why. With Rush it’s always something new and different, and never half-assed. They give it their best every time, and R40 Live is no different. Fans should add this to their collection for the great performance, but also for its historical significance. It may be the last major tour stop at the band’s home city of Toronto. They say that they aren’t officially retired, so perhaps we’ll hear more of them in the future. But if not, then R40 Live is a fine closing chapter for a band whose rock and roll legacy is peerless.