It is a testament to the vast and enduring appeal of Canada’s favourite sons that R40 Live doesn’t seem like an unnecessary addition to their already enormous catalogue of live albums and concert films.
The fact is that part of Rush’s allure is their refusal to repeat themselves, and while in the last decade alone they have released four significant live documents, this latest capturing of the band’s unerring live prowess exudes a sense of freshness and vitality that somehow surpasses them all. Also, as this is footage of what could well be their last ever tour, the whole enterprise is imbued with an extra aura of poignancy.
Recorded across two nights at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto in June 2015, R40 Live once again sees Rush jump into their time machine, but while previous tours took a scattershot approach to combining nostalgia and currency, this show took a highly effective linear approach, as the band trot chronologically backwards from Clockwork Angels to their self-titled 1974 debut, taking in all manner of established classics and underrated gems along the way, and all under the piercing gaze of 14 HD cameras and bolstered by the all-encompassing magic of a 5.1 surround sound mix.
It hardly needs saying that the whole thing looks and sounds absolutely incredible: the chemistry between Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart has always been electrifying, of course, but they have never sounded more powerful than they do launching into the sprawling thump of The Anarchist. Extra layers of HD intensity added by a baying, ecstatic hometown crowd are of no small significance either, but Rush seem to provoke the same reaction wherever they go these days. Being the world’s biggest cult band with four decades on the clock must engender a degree of collective comfort, and yet this performance suggests that they still feel inclined to fight for every cheer. With that in mind, the set list is nothing short of inspired. There are immaculate renditions of Tom Sawyer, Closer To The Heart, The Spirit Of Radio and YYZ, of course, but it’s the off-piste selections that make R40 so much more than just another live excursion.
The set list is inspired, the world’s biggest cult band fighting for every cheer.
What is most remarkable is that rare outings for How It Is (from Snakes & Arrows) and Animate (from Counterparts) are greeted with the same deafening roar that erupts for the big hits, and an exquisite and elegant reading of Losing It (from Signals), replete with violin from Ben Mink (who played on the original album version) sends the sold out venue into a state of dewy-eyed rapture. Rush’s career-long blending of intelligence, emotion and self-effacing humour has always set them apart from their supposed peers, and R40 cements that uniqueness, right down to the reliably ludicrous comedy skits that keep the Toronto hordes amused between sets.
Anyone that favours the more elaborate and indulgent explorations of Rush’s early years may need to be lightly sedated before watching the second half of this marathon performance. A chilling Jacob’s Ladder leads into large, meticulous chunks of Hemispheres, followed by a sensational version of Xanadu that obliterates the notion that there is something old fashioned and silly about such rambling epics. Geddy Lee may have to work hard to hit some of the notes he first squeezed out in the mid 70s, but he is consistently victorious, not least on a closing, abridged _2112 _that is so joyously thunderous that even Neil Peart cracks a smile (albeit for the briefest of seconds). After such extravagance, encores of Lakeside Park and Working Man seem like jaunty footnotes, but the band’s infectious enthusiasm carries every last moment.
In terms of bonus material, a smattering of additional songs from the same tour – three on the DVD/Blu-Ray release and a further four on the CD incarnation – are welcome but inessential in light of the main course’s flagrant opulence, and the lack of any extra non-performance goodies feels like a slight oversight… but then, of course, Rush have released so many live albums that there may not be much else they can say or do that diehard fans have not seen or heard before.
And therein lies the secret to 40 years of supreme creativity and success: as familiar and scrutinised as they are, Rush still sound like three aspiring musicians on a never-ending quest to write the best, most adventurous music they can conjure from their febrile imaginations. That so many people have adored them suggests there may yet be a glimmer of hope for the human race.