Travel back in time with Lerxst, Dirk, and the Professor!"
Six months ago, while reviewing Rush's excellent R30, I mentioned off-handedly that the band has taken to the concert DVD format so well, that they could keep their legions of ultra-loyal fans happy by spending the next few years putting out disc after disc of impeccably recorded and presented performances. I wrote that comment facetiously, but that certainly appears to have been what the trio of bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer Neil Peart all had in mind recently, because hot on the heels of 2005's acclaimed document of their 30th anniversary tour comes another whopping four-disc set. Unlike R30 and its outstanding predecessor Rush in Rio, however, instead of celebrating the present incarnation of the Canadian legends, Replay x 3 travels back two decades, to a period where Rush was packing arenas, challenging listeners, and becoming one of the few '70s hard rock mainstays to age gracefully and manage to put out vital music during the 1980s.
During that decade, the band released three concert films which appeared in both VHS format and laserdisc, and for the first time ever, all three have been spruced up and remastered for their DVD debut. Although the set does not contain the kinds of bells and whistles the other DVDs came crammed with, the release of the three videos as part of one nicely priced, neatly designed package is a real treat for fans, something many have waited a long time for.
Rush - "Tom Sawyer" from Exit... Stage Left
Filmed in Montreal on 27 March 1981, during the early stage of their tour in support of the hugely successful Moving Pictures album, Exit... Stage Left was initially issued as a companion to the sprawling double live album of the same name, and while clocking in at a paltry 60 minutes, is nonetheless a valuable snapshot of a band that was, according to many, at its creative peak. The trio blaze through tracks that, while new at the time, would become some of their most enduring songs, and that sense of enthusiasm and freshness is palpable when we hear such titles as "Limelight", "Red Barchetta", and the soon-to-be ubiquitous "Tom Sawyer". The Moving Pictures era would be the last time Rush would take a more organic musical approach, as their next four albums would head in a very different direction, and the prog rock geeks in the crowd will get a real kick out of Lifeson and Lee performing in all their double-necked glory on the great epic "Xanadu", as well as seeing Peart's massive arsenal of chimes, tubular bells, tympani, and gong in his ever-expanding kit. It may be a truncated performance, interrupted by annoying interview voice-overs, poorly lit, and shot on grainy film, but seeing the band conclude the show with a rousing medley of such '70s nuggets as "By-Tor and the Snow Dog", "In the End", "In the Mood", and "2112 Finale" (which, along with "Limelight", is not on the live album) is enough to let the flaws slide.
Rush's 1982-1987 period has been much maligned over the years, as they abandoned their classic power trio sound in favor of a more commercially friendly approach, with stronger emphasis on electronics, but as the next two concert films help prove, the music might have been more polished and straightforward, but it reached some tremendous heights in its own right, and at times sounded better live than on record. 1984's Grace Under Pressure is a misunderstood gem of an album, and while a touch on the over-polished side, the songs from this period burst with life on the 1985 concert video of the same name. Videotaped during a two-night stint at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens in September 1984, the first thing you notice is just how much the style of the time had infiltrated the band's look, from Lee's mullet, to Lifeson's new wave coif, to Peart's braided ponytail, not to mention the sport jacket/t-shirt ensembles, the green laser effects, Lee's Steinberger bass, Peart's electronic drum pads, and the soft-focus look on the video itself. Get past the '80s garishness, though, and you've got one of the best Rush performances caught on tape.
Rush - "Vital Signs" from Grace Under Pressure
Much less stoic and more comfortable playing in front of a large arena crowd, the band is completely at ease, having fun playing a set derived heavily from Grace Under Pressure and 1982's synth-heavy Signals. Intent on letting it be known they never take themselves too seriously, they take the stage to the Three Stooges theme (a tradition that continued for many years afterward), have their fans watch one song with 3D glasses, and have SCTV's Joe Flaherty, in full Count Floyd get-up, introduce "The Weapon". Musically, Peart shows he's as great at restrained percussion as he is at more intricate pieces (his subtle fills are a marvel), Lee balances synth, bass, bass pedals, and sequencers with impressive ease, and Lifeson provides spacious, emotive accompaniment on guitar, a far cry from his '70s axe work, but every bit as virtuosic. Highlights of the hour-long performance include ebullient performances of "New World Man" and "The Spirit of Radio", "Witch Hunt" (which was debuted on that tour) and "Vital Signs" from Moving Pictures, and the always-stirring "Red Sector A". Again, the video is painfully brief, containing little more than half of the band's set, but it's difficult to complain when the music is performed so impeccably.
1988's A Show of Hands, though, offers the closest thing to a complete Rush concert experience, filmed over three nights in Birmingham, England in April 1988, near the end of their extensive Hold Your Fire tour. The best-shot video of the bunch, it was released simultaneously with a CD version, and while some key tracks are excised ("Subdivisions" and "Time Stand Still" appear on the CD), it's a superb all-around set that places strong emphasis on 1987's Hold Your Fire and 1985's Power Windows, and while older material like "Closer to the Heart" is performed with verve, again, it's the newer material that captures our attention the most. "The Big Money", the oft-overlooked "Marathon", and "Force Ten" all sound exuberant, while more introspective fare like "Mission", "Manhattan Project", and "Territories" have the band sounding poignant without coming off as syrupy. "The Rhythm Method" is the first complete Peart drum solo to be released on video, and he does not disappoint, his new-fangled (at the time) MIDI trigger pads allowing him the kind of percussive freedom that was just not possible before, no matter how many instruments he crammed around his elaborate kit.
Rush - "Manhattan Project" from A Show of Hands
While the five channel surround sound of Rush in Rio and R30 were spectacular, the mixes on the three DVDs are simply good. Mixed by Lifeson, it might lack the detail of more modern recordings, but he does a capable job considering the source material, his resonant guitars dominating the rear channels.
A CD soundtrack of the terrific Grace Under Pressure show, which was previously unreleased, is included, but perhaps the best bonus features of the entire set are the duplications of the original tour books from 1981, 1984, and 1987, reduced to DVD booklet size. Normal tour programs are usually crammed with photos and little else, but it's another story with Rush, as all three books contain detailed and often hilarious descriptions of the band's gear at the time, as well as very well-written essays written by the witty, professorial Peart.
Replay x 3 doesn't outshine the previous two Rush DVDs, but it does give the fans more of what they've wanted, and the fact that the band keeps delivering such high quality products to their audience is commendable. It seems that the band is finished putting out concert DVDs for the time being, as a new studio album is currently in the works, but with three and a half more hours of Rush for us to binge on, we'll be just fine until the new disc arrives. After that, we can start clamoring for a fourth live DVD.