During the opening seconds of "Tom Sawyer" on Rush's new concert DVD, Rush in Rio, when the camera pans across the ecstatic crowd, you see one man completely overcome with emotion, his hands held together, as he stares up at the nighttime sky, thanking the heavens above that he's finally getting a chance to see his favorite band, who just happens to be opening the set with their greatest ever song. It's the kind of rapturous response that could only come from a Brazilian audience. Face it, they love their hard rock music, and they have more fun at concerts than anyone else in the world. Judging by the audiences in Iron Maiden's 2002 DVD release, Rock in Rio, and now with this new Rush release, there should be some kind of rule set in place in the rock world, stating that all live albums and concert films must be recorded in Brazil.
"We're not very smart," says bassist/singer Geddy Lee, when asked why it took the Canadian progressive rock legends so long to make their first appearance in South America in November of 2002. The band say they were genuinely surprised to learn just how popular they are in Brazil, as their three-date mini-tour of the country drew an incredible 125,000 people. Despite numerous problems with a tropical storm during their stay, the band was able to film the third show in Rio de Janeiro, and the resulting two-disc DVD is the definitive live document Rush fans have been craving for decades. To put it bluntly, it's spectacular, and well worth the wait.
Disc One is completely devoted to that Rio show, which should soon become the stuff of legend amongst Rush devotees. Problems with weather delayed the set-up, as the road crew, film crew, and recording crew all scrambled to get things set up. That meant no sound check, no film check, and no recording check; everybody was working without a net, including the band. But when Rush took the stage, mere minutes after their road crew had finished setting things up at 10 PM, and that unmistakable opening synth note of "Tom Sawyer" kicked in, it was smooth sailing for the rest of the night.
The entire set is terrific, a nearly three hour performance by a band completely on top of their game. Whether they were energized by the craziness of the day's events, or because it was the last show of their 66-date tour, the power with which they play is palpable. Never before has Rush sounded so great on an official live recording (and Rush has many of them). Lee's bass playing is as forceful as it ever has been, Alex Lifeson's criminally underrated guitar work shines throughout, and as for the great Neil Peart, well, his drumming continues to inspire awe. Though the lengthy set focuses on the band's 2002 album Vapor Trails (as it rightly should), the set list mines the band's vast back catalogue, as 15 of the band's 17 studio albums are represented (1975's Caress of Steel and 1987's Hold Your Fire are the only exclusions). Whether it's an old song or a newer one, the reaction from the Rio crowd is always ecstatic.
Tracks from Rush's more synthesizer-oriented '80s albums are superbly done, as "Distant Early Warning", "The Big Money", "Limelight", and "New World Man" sound as energized as they've ever been. Newer songs, like "Earthshine" and "One Little Victory", hold up well among the classic songs, and both 1989's "The Pass" and 1984's "Red Sector A" remain two of the most powerful tracks in the band's history. That said, the real treats are the selections from the early Rush albums, especially the pounding "2112: Overture / The Temple of the Syrinx" and the closing trifecta of "By-Tor and the Snow Dog", "Cygnus X-1", and "Working Man". The 40,000 fans actually sing along to "YYZ" (the first time I've ever seen a crowd sing along to an instrumental), and the band sound as tight as ever on the longtime live staple "La Villa Strangiato". The clear highlight, though, is "O Baterista", Peart's mesmerizing eight-minute drum solo, which mines the history of percussion, from African drumming, to jazz, to Latin, to rock. Few drummers are able to make a lengthy solo interesting, but Peart, surrounded by his massive, gold-trimmed kit, never fails to make audiences' collective jaws hit the floor.
The second disc of the set is a real treat for fans. Andrew MacNaughton's hour-long documentary "The Boys in Brazil" is an endlessly fascinating offstage look at the band's tumultuous trip. All three band members are forthright, articulate, and very, very funny, and it's fun to see their reaction to being mobbed everywhere by their devoted fans, something they're not exactly used to. Three of the concert's instrumental tracks are included on the second disc, this time with a multiangle feature, allowing viewers to focus on one single member of the band. The feature is especially great during Peart's drum solo, which allows drum fanatics to study Peart's movements extra closely. Two hidden features are also on the disc, a very funny cartoon that is projected during "By-Tor and the Snow Dog", as well as a rare promo video for 1975's "Anthem", showing a freakishly young, and frighteningly hairy Rush in action.
Although the concert is presented in widescreen format, with an incredibly sharp, high definition picture, the DVD is not enhanced for 16 x 9 televisions, which may annoy some people, but it's been revealed that if they wanted to make the DVD enhanced, the band would have had to sacrifice the image quality of the stationary mini-cameras around Peart's drumkit, so to preserve the image quality and overall consistency of the show, they opted not to go the enhanced route.
Their 2002 tour was Rush's first in five years but the fire hasn't fizzled out one bit. The band still sounds extremely tight, yet what's more impressive is the loose, relaxed, lighthearted way they go about performing their intricate hard rock. You've got the surreal touch of Geddy Lee's three clothes dryers behind him (the roadies change the laundry midway through the set), a sample from The Simpsons popping up at the conclusion of "The Big Money", and Lifeson's goofy stream of consciousness rant during "La Villa Strangiato". They're always enjoying themselves up there onstage (even the stoic Peart cracks a smile every once in a while), and the Rio fans are, too. Rush in Rio is a masterful live recording, superbly packaged (complete with some very well-written notes by Peart), and proves that, though these guys have now turned 50, they're still a much more potent live band than most young artists out there today. Sit back and bask in the sheer power of it all.