Rush - R30 Review

Perhaps reflecting the attitude of the band themselves, Rush fans are an exigent and fastidious bunch. One might expect seeing Rush return in spectacular form in 2002 after an enforced six year break with a stunning collection of songs on Vapor Trails, that the band might be cut some slack by fans for the always controversial production values on their studio albums – but no, there was much debate and dissatisfaction with the sound of the album, obscuring the fact that this was a terrific and indisputable return to form.

Even more contentious and polarising is the attitude towards the band’s live performances – from the best era, whether it be Exit, Stage Left, A Show Of Hands or Different Stages (there are many live recordings to choose from), to disagreements over the track selection and quality of the mix. There is no blind devotion among fans here – if the product doesn’t meet the high expectations of individual fans they are quite prepared to boycott the material, as was shown when the band released their first live DVD, Rush In Rio in 2003. Fans who didn’t like the particular tracklisting selected for that performance were prepared to not even look at the DVD, for which opinion on the quality of the audio and visual aspects was similarly varied and polarised (currently user ratings on my earlier review are split between 1 and 10, with nothing in-between). Whatever merits that release had – and I personally thought they were considerable enough to outweigh any minor shortcomings – it was clear however that Rush In Rio failed not only to live up to the expectations of many fans, it also failed to live up to what advance publicity had led fans to expect. The promised DTS audio track never appeared, the transfer was not anamorphically enhanced and the multi-angle feature turned out to be little more than a gimmick. The most controversial aspect of the release however was the actual mixing of the audience noise over the band’s performance, which for some captured the intense power of the Rush live show and for others was just a muddy mess.

Returning with another world tour in 2004 to celebrate the band’s 30th Anniversary and another live DVD release as a souvenir of that tour, Rush have attempted to appease those fans who were unhappy with the previous release. Recorded in Frankfurt, Germany on 24 September 2004, Rush R30 has a quite different tracklisting from the pervious Rush In Rio set (the band have plenty of exceptional material to make any number of strong sets from) and the show was recorded using 14 hi-definition cameras in 16:9 widescreen format. But in a set that again leans heavily towards the band’s earlier classics, you know some fans - particularly anyone who likes the Power Windows, Presto (the only album not represented at all in the set), Hold Your Fire and Counterparts period of the band's career - still aren’t going to be happy with the line-up here.

Rush’s 30th Anniversary show opens up with a lovely little Pythonesque animated montage of the group’s iconic cover art designs over the decades, the band coming on stage to perform a fans-only Overture of Rush’s greatest intro riffs - Finding My Way, Bastille Day, Anthem, A Passage To Bangkok, Cygnus and Hemispheres - mindless noise to the unbeliever, I’m sure, but a lifetime of memories and delights to longtime fans. As usual with any concert performance, it takes a little while to get used to the concert mixing, waiting for the levels to settle into a satisfactory balance, but by the time we get to The Spirit Of Radio, you can already tell that both the band and sound are going to deliver. If it still doesn’t sound right to you, get off the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix at this stage and try the PCM Stereo track - there is a world of difference. The sheer rightness of the sound is confirmed by the time we hit Force Ten, Peart’s drums and Lee’s bass laying down a solid rhythm for Lifeson’s guitar to crash in with fine dynamics. Only the vocals still sound less than clear at this point. A slight lull in proceedings follows with Animate, which comes across as curiously lifeless in the midst of the opening part of the set, the chopping rhythms failing to really gel together – but the performance is still note perfect. There may be a slight drop-out in sound around the start of the final chorus.

When the band reached Subdivisions at this point in the leg of the tour that I caught at Glasgow’s SEC, I knew we were in for a special performance and a unique setlist with a chance to hear many songs not performed for years. This track from 1982 still holds up (better than anything else on the Signals album, I think) – Peart’s drum rhythms absolutely astonishing, driving through the swathes of synthesisers and Lifeson’s crunching guitar. A major highlight. Another favourite from the last album of original material, 2002’s Vapor Trails, the harsh echoing guitar sounds of Earthshine muddy the sound in a live context and fail to let the subtleties of the complex arrangement come through. By way of contrast, the glorious picked chords of Red Barchetta are clearly defined against the rounded bass and forceful drumming of the rhythm section, making the song sound wonderful in its live arrangement. Fabulous. Never a particularly favourite song from a relatively weak album, I don’t think Roll The Bones works in a live context either. Like most of the tracks performed here however, it comes across much better in the PCM mix. As part of Rush’s 30th Anniversary celebrations in 2004, we were treated to a mini-album Feedback, where the band returned to their roots and recorded a number of rock classics that were influential in their early years. All of these songs, scattered throughout the show and started off here with The Who’s The Seeker, work superbly live in performance, taking on a very Rush sound in their delivery.

Following an amusing Darn That Dragon animation, full of early sword and sorcery Rush-isms, the second half of the performance commences with Tom Sawyer. I know it’s subjective, but this is peak period Rush and the band show that they are still quite capable of delivering the goods – simply phenomenal. It seems rather difficult to balance levels in the rather busy Dreamline, with the vocals perhaps suffering most. There is a slight jump here that seems to be a layer change, rather unfortunately placed in the middle of Lifeson’s solo. “Pulled out from the vaults”, we are then treated to Between The Wheels from the Grace Under Pressure album – a strong, almost epic arrangement, the band plough through this with fresh vigour. Another highlight, with Geddy Lee in fine voice, this is well deserving of its place in the 30th Anniversary set list. On the other hand, I’m sorry but I’ve never liked Mystic Rhythms, but it is given a fair performance here – the instruments all being given plenty of room to stand-out and it does at least introduce a timely change of pace. The change of dynamic is carried through to Neil Peart’s traditional drum solo segment of the show in the eight and a half minute Der Trommler, which is untypical of any other drum solo you might see, making use of a variety of kit and percussive instruments in a number of different styles. As a drummer, Peart may not be to everyone’s taste – the drum solo is a technically dazzling lesson in drumming, but more cerebral than physical. Lifeson and Lee’s acoustic section gives the drummer a break after his workout. Resist suits its stripped down arrangement, taking a little of the pomposity from the rather self-righteous but well-meaning lyrics (“I can learn to close my eyes to anything but injustice”). This slips in to an acoustic rendition of The Yardbirds Heart Full Of Soul - again a song that works very well in this format, allowing the strength of the song to come through, Peart returning to give the song an extra kick.

After the mid-section of the second part of the show, anything can be expected and happily (at least as far as I’m concerned – fans of their late 80’s and 90’s material might not be so delighted) it’s a run through of Rush classics. Starting with the crowd-pleasing 2112, followed by the chiming opening that heralds Xanadu - another cover showing an early Rush influence, ELO and Olivia Newton-John (I’m kidding) - and a full workout of Working Man taking us all the way back to 1974 and leaving us mystified at how underrated the great Alex Lifeson is - it’s a tour-de-force for the guitarist. The encore features a blistering run-though of more classic songs from the Feedback mini-album, Summertime Blues and Crossroads. And personally, I can’t think of a more perfect closing song and performance than Limelight.

Rush – R30 is released on DVD in two different packs. The 2-DVD Package includes the Frankfurt concert on disc one with a second DVD of rare vintage performance footage and interviews culled from the last three decades. The Deluxe Edition contains both of the aforementioned DVDs, but also includes the Frankfurt concert on two bonus CDs which are not available separately. The Deluxe Edition also includes two limited edition Rush guitar picks and a souvenir backstage pass.

Forget the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. It is vastly inferior to the PCM stereo track offered as an alternative. The surround mix has a tendency to sound booming with echoing vocals, no great definition to the instruments or sharpness to the tight drum sounds. It is slightly warmer and less clinical than the stereo track however, it has to be said. The audience noise – such a major and controversial element on the mixing of Rush In Rio, is kept well down in the mix here, only faintly audible on the rear speakers between tracks. Despite the controversy, I enjoyed this enveloping mix on Rush In Rio - but it certainly didn’t please everyone.
The PCM track then is the only way to listen to R30. I mean, seriously. The difference is incredible – deep, sharp and reverberating, with fineness of detail and clarity of tone. A little clinical in places perhaps, but that’s what we want, isn’t it? Well, obviously, not everyone...

Despite the use of hi-definition video, the picture quality is inevitably going to find it difficult to cope with stage lighting and unfortunately there are the usual issues with chroma noise, pixilation, dot crawl and combing. Few of the problems can be easily detected in normal playback, but you will get the impression of a slight blurring in movement from the combing and a jaggedness or kind of crystallisation around brightly-lit objects caused by some nasty pixilation. An example of this can be seen in the screencapture below. Overall though, the transfer is well up to handling the variety of colour schemes in the concert lighting. There are no complaints about the filming style. The show uses less cameras than Rush In Rio, but they are well placed and unobtrusive, avoiding too many quick cuts and they have no effects applied other than the occasional dissolve, picking up the right angles and focus for each song.

Click to enlarge
(Click image to enlarge)

The second disc of the set includes an hour and a half of fascinating rare archive performances, both mimed studio and live performances and a number of television interviews. Beware of some very dodgy haircuts and fashions.

Interview with at Hamilton Ivor Wynne Stadium (1979) (9:52). Geddy Lee talks about the growing success of the band and their approach - moving away from conceptual albums - to their new album, the then unrecorded and untitled Permanent Waves.
Studio interview at Le Studio, Montreal (1980) (12:59). All three members of the band discuss their new approach to writing and recording, and their enjoyment of live performance. Neil and Geddy do most of the talking, Alex goofs around – as usual.
1980sArtist of the Decade (1990) (15:32). A fabulous interview with all the members of the band interviewed separately, reflecting on the highs and lows of their career and illustrating the indomitable spirit of Rush.
CBC Television: Juno Awards show (1994) (17:33). An awards ceremony to celebrate Rush’s induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, this features interview and performance clips, including a tribute from Mike Myers and other celebrity fans. Again, the band’s sense of humour comes through here.
Interview for release of Vapor Trails (2002) (12:51). Alex and Geddy talk about the apprehension of going back to the studio and how the band spirit and music came together again after a long separation. There’s some reflection on the hard work that made them successful, like the recording of 1974's Fly By Night in 4 days in between the 250 gigs they played that year.

The Anthem Vault
Fly By Night (3:25) is a mimed performance in a studio from 1975 – one of the Church Session Videos.
Finding My Way (4:22) and In The Mood (3:20) are of very rough quality, shown in small, window-boxed format because of the low and fuzzy quality of the video. Nevertheless they feature furious and energetic live performances of these early tracks and are well worth inclusion regardless of the picture quality.
Circumstances (3:43) is a live in the studio performance which overuses the starburst filter on the camera.
La Villa Strangiato (10:12), is a full straight run-through of the song live in 1978 - a virtuoso display from Alex Lifeson demonstrating his ability to get an incredible range of sounds from one guitar.
A Farewell to Kings (5:52) and Xanadu (11:10) feature the band in flowing capes during their madrigal period. These are mimed to studio performances on a stage setting.
The Spirit of Radio (1:02) is a brief soundcheck at the Hamilton Ivor Wynne Stadium in 1979.
Freewill (5:34) is a recording from the Toronto Rocks / Rolling Stones Concert, 2003, and by God, Geddy Lee can still hit those high notes!
Closer to the Heart (3:25) sees the band with a couple of guests performing in a recording studio for the Canadian Tsunami Disaster Fund charity telethon on CBC television in 2005. This is a lovely little performance.

Well, this definitely captures the same show I saw in Glasgow during the UK leg of the R30 tour, with the band still showing no sign of aging, slowing down or mellowing out. It has however better sound than the booming acoustics of the SEC, and you get a better view of the band than I had stuck at the front of the second block centre. I can’t claim to be objective in this review or even speak for all Rush fans, but from a personal perspective, this is a great recording and wonderful souvenir from that tour, fully living up to any expectation I could have from the band in concert. There are still a few technical issues with this release, but with a stunning PCM Stereo track it is unlikely to be as controversial as the mix on Rush In Rio. In terms of extra features this is a little gold-mine for long-time fans, with an amazing selection of archive material from many periods of the band’s career. We all now eagerly await another album and tour from a band who still seem to be on top form, not yet ready to rest on their laurels, but always capable of progressing their musical ability.

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