Finally, a Rush live album! Even for an old Rush fan like me, their live albums are beginning to seem a little redundant. Since returning to “active duty” in 2002, we’ve been treated to more live releases than we got in nearly the first three decades of the band’s existence! I hesitate to say it, but this seems a little like overkill. You can’t blame the band, however. We fans have been seeking out crappy bootlegs for ages, buying them for ridiculous prices in shady shops and finally trading and downloading them online, so why shouldn’t they get a cut too? But, in a way, the ritual of those official live releases has disappeared.
Before the past decade, it was a given there’d be four studio albums followed by a live album. It worked pretty well. The band seemed to move in stylistic blocks like that, too, and the live album seemed to be the line of demarcation between one and the next. And, as fans, we anticipated it: What would make it from the previous four albums to the next live album?
That’s the same as any randomly appearing live album, of course, but that they are so planned out, it seemed like the song selection was more carefully being weeded out from tour to tour. This song worked, that song didn’t, and what made it to the live albums was, more often than not, spectacular. But then drummer Neil Peart’s double tragedy struck — losing both his daughter to a car crash and his wife to cancer in the space of 10 months. It seems to have injected into the band an attitude that any tour could be their last, so why not release everything?
There’s an upside and a downside to that. Die-hard fans get it all — all those songs that they pull out on each tour that don’t get repeated again and generally good sound quality. On the other hand, the anticipation is gone, as is the weeding-out process … not to mention an overabundance of repeats over the years of those classics we all know and love, but maybe we know them just a bit too well and don’t need to hear them again, live, again, again.
Where I used to clamor for full, uncut concerts, I secretly (and now publicly) wished for short, well-manicured live sets focusing on the material we fans have been hoping to hear — things recently pulled out of retirement after ages like “Red Sector A,” “Between The Wheels,” “Circumstances,” or “Natural Science,” among Vapor Trails and Snakes And Arrows live tracks? A live compilation full of that material, alone, rather than, wow, four two- and three-disc live sets with a smattering of those in the past nine years? It would be devastating. Fun. Fantastic.
All that said, this brings us to Time Machine 2011: Live In Cleveland. The title is the concept — though isn’t every concert really an excuse to run through a band’s history? Well, in this case, Rush used this opportunity to, as they really have been doing each tour lately, rifle through catalog and pull out some dusty old gems (“Time Stand Still,” reggae “Working Man,” “Marathon,” “Subdivisions,” “Stick It Out” and “Leave That Thing Alone”) and even one bonafide “never been played before” fan favorite (“Presto”) but, most importantly, a run-through of their entire classic Moving Pictures album for its 30th anniversary. Some of those tunes have been played a lot (“Tom Sawyer,” “Limelight,” I’m looking at you) but others have disappeared for far, far too long. Welcome back to the stage “The Camera Eye” and “Witch Hunt.” Maybe you’ll stick around for a couple tours?
Mixed in, there’s also another healthy helping of Snakes And Arrows material, their most recent studio album, and both of the recent singles, “Caravan” and “BU2B” (which will be a part of the upcoming studio album, Clockwork Angels.)
If you know Rush, you know the band’s on fire — it’s a given. When has Rush ever played a limp show, especially for a recording? Of the recent live releases, this might be the best recording and the most satisfying total release of them. But, and there always has to be a but, for all its pluses (the great tracklisting, great sound, incredible performance) the one minus is sadly Geddy Lee’s voice. This isn’t a crack at Geddy’s voice on the early material, back in the 1970s, believe me, but a comment about how he’s handling his vocals today. Through much of the recording he is fine, singing in the much more mature voice that developed through the 1980s into a very emotive, expressive style that little resembles the style he sang in during the mid-70s. But at times, such as, unfortunately, that “first time ever” recording of “Presto,” his voice seems to slip deep into his throat, as if he’s attempting to voice a Muppet.
As much as I love this band, it makes some of these tracks hard to listen to. This is especially frustrating when everything about this live release is so close to perfect. I found myself getting lost in the performance and then something, whatever it is that’s going on, would happen to Geddy’s voice, and I’m pulled back out. A sign of age, I guess, but it’s hard to accept, and, as I look around at various early responses from fans, they’re having a hard time with it too. But in a time when digitally altered vocals are the norm, I feel like maybe I have to be thankful that they resisted the urge to touch them up. This is, hopefully, one of those things that time and exposure will make seem less noticeable.
It would be a shame for one of the band’s stronger live releases to go ignored. And while the shine and sparkle of the new is hard to ignore, I can’t help but feel this ranks up there with the band’s first three live albums. Maybe just a little flawed, looking back at the past few live releases with their other flaws — bad recordings (Rush In Rio,) terrible mixing/mastering (Snakes And Arrows Live,) inclusion only in a boxset and then only a partial show (R30) — this one shines in so many ways. Regardless that we haven’t had four studio albums to wait for it, this could have been “the one.”