This is the way it’s supposed to be for a veteran rock group, enjoying a relaxing world tour in the twilight of its multiplatinum career, not phoning in it and going through the motions.
For lead singer-bassist Geddy Lee, Rush’s “Test For Echo” tour last year was perhaps the most fun he has ever had on the road. A year later, that carefree atmosphere is reflected in the Canadian trio’s striking three-CD live set, “Different Stages,” released Nov. 10 on Anthem/Atlantic.
“I think the quality of the performances night to night were very high, the consistency of the performances were very high,” Lee said recently. “Partly the way the set was organized, having two sets with an intermission in between and no opening act, there was a lot less wear and tear on us. Through the course of the day, we had the whole day to ourselves; we didn’t have to get there till 5 o’clock.
“(Guitarist) Alex (Lifeson) and I traveled by private plane, and that was really nice. You had the flight and the next thing you know you’re sleeping in your hotel room, instead of sleeping on a bus. We got up almost every day and played golf. It was leisurely and very enjoyable. For (drummer) Neil (Peart) as well, he organized a very extensive motorcycle trip around the tour, where essentially he would go from stage to his bus, go to sleep as soon as his adrenalin had died down. Around 5 or 6 in the morning, he’d get up, get on his motorcycle with his buddy and they had a trailer behind them with three motorcycles. They plotted out this beautiful route to wherever the next venue was, off the beaten track. Along the way, they would stop in all sorts of interesting little towns in America. Of course, he would pick me up a fridge magnet at each stop for my collection.
“Everybody made the most of it, and at the end of the day, there was this gig.”
For “Different Stages,” there were many gigs to sort through, more than 100. Lee, co-producer and engineer Paul Northfield and live sound engineer Robert Scovill whittled down mounds of tapes, eliminating technically flawed shows and narrowing it down to the best 15.
“We recorded almost every show,” Lee said. “You make an attempt to be recording all the time so that you forget about it. You’re not thinking about the fact that you’re recording. Past albums, it was ‘Okay, we’re going to record these 10 shows.’ It’s pressure and it makes you uptight, and you never really know if you got your best performance.
“Recording in this manner, you’re never thinking about it. You’re going to capture some of those moments, if nothing else by accident. That was the whole point of doing it this way. I think it was successful, even though it was a helluva lot more work in post-production to try to sift through a hundred shows and eliminate bad takes, sitting there with 15 great versions of one song. ‘Just shoot me in the head now, how am I supposed to know which one’s the best one?’ “
It was a mammoth undertaking, one Lee says he isn’t likely to repeat, but he’s pleased with the results. Disc One steps back to the 1970s, to the days of “Closer to the Heart” and “The Trees,” climaxing with the entire “2112” suite. Disc Two tackles more recent works, such as “Show Don’t Tell,” “Analog Kid,” “Tom Sawyer” and an efficient version of the group’s most identifiable song, “The Spirit of Radio.”
The third disc, a freebie to the group’s loyal fans, unearths a mislaid performance at London’s famed Hammersmith Odeon during the 1978 “A Farewell to Kings” tour.
“We had recorded it for a radio show, I believe,” Lee said. “I couldn’t remember when I found the tapes why I had them, but after thinking about it and listening to the show and hearing my voice, I realized I had a cold. I think I had one of those mid-tour bugs, because some of the phrasing on some of the songs is really unusual; I was back-phrasing like a mother.
“Obviously, I had a sore throat, so I was trying to get through the show and compensate by singing a little differently. It was really only the early part of the show that suffered for it, then you see that my voice warmed up. But if I was doing it for a radio show, my thinking would’ve been, ‘How can I not put the beginning part of the show on? It’s not going to work, so forget about it.’ I must’ve put the tapes in my road case and taken them home.
“Twenty years later, I put that first show up and you hear the first three or four songs and my voice is a little croaky, but if you eliminate those songs and just stick to the bulk of the show, it sounds great. So that’s what I did, I used the best parts of the show. The instrumental part, to me, was fresh. And playing for the English crowds are unique; they react in a particular way, and that venue always had a special significance to us because so many bands we had admired came up from London and all played that building at one point or another.
“When we put the tapes up, it really took me back there, and I thought, ‘Maybe that’ll do that for our fans,’ transport them to another continent and to another time in our band’s history, and include it as a gift, a bonus package.”
“Different Stages” is a true retrospective, Lee says, as the band approaches the 25th anniversary of its self-titled Mercury debut album. So much has happened since, including 20 gold and platinum albums, which ties them for third with Kiss for the most by a group in rock history, behind the Rolling Stones and Beatles.
Surprisingly, Rush was a hard sell in 1974, even in its native Toronto. “We couldn’t get arrested,” Lee says, laughing. The group couldn’t get a record deal and wound up releasing “Rush” on its own label, a copy of which landed in the hands of Cleveland disc jockey Donna Halper, who put it on WMMS’ rotation. Fans came out of the woodwork and Mercury swooped in.
Like Kiss, Rush’s fan base hasn’t wavered since. Even Lee is hard pressed to come up with its secret to long-term success.
“At the core of it, though, there’s a sound and a subject matter that we deal with that strikes a very positive chord in our fan base, more than in passing,” he said. “There’s a conviction in our music, and what we’ve talked about from time to time has obviously affected people in a profound way and that has made them loyal to our band. That’s created an environment for us to work in, and the chemistry within the band, our friendship, our mutual respect for each other as musicians and our single-mindedness of musical direction has made the most of that opportunity created by those fans.”
There are no definitive plans for a new Rush studio album, Lee said, due largely to the deaths of Peart’s wife and daughter last year.
BWF (before we forget): The Rush album discography (all Mercury titles have been reissued and remastered via Chronicles) – “Rush” (Mercury, 1974); “Fly By Night” (1975); “Caress of Steel” (1975); “2112” (1976); “All the World’s a Stage” (live, 1976); “A Farewell to Kings” (1977); “Archives” (reissue of first three LPs, 1978); “Hemispheres” (1978); “Permanent Waves” (1980); “Moving Pictures” (1981); “Exit … Stage Left” (live, 1981); “Signals” (1982); “Grace Under Pressure” (1984); “Power Windows” (1985); “Hold Your Fire” (1987); “A Show of Hands” (live, 1989); “Presto” (1989); “Chronicles” (best-of, 1990); “Roll the Bones” (Atlantic, 1991); “Counterparts” (1993); “Test For Echo” (1996); “Different Stages” (Anthem/Atlantic, live, 1998).
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