Today's Tom Sawyer…he gets high on you!
Back in the mid-1970s, there was one band that always got associated with the more marginal aspects of rock's wussiest offspring, the gelfling gobbledygook known as progressive—or prog for those with pot-addled brains. While ELP had Keith Emerson humping his Moog and Yes somehow managed to steer clear of complete denouncement, even with coloratura voiced Jon Anderson and "Tales from Topographic Oceans," there was still this one unholy hellspawn of Satanistic shrillness that caused even the most heavy metal muddled eardrum to bleed with big beat blasphemy. This murderous musical monotony, this Northern noise factory, complete with a strident singing siren named Geddy and a tendency to overcomplicate even the simplest three chord progression had a name that directly contradicted its playing style. More than willing to meander around in proto-jazz cheese doodling than straight ahead cockrocking, Rush made the constant case that the Grating White North of American Lite—AKA Canada—had no business shaking, rattling, or rolling. Still, they were always around on the fringe, irritating the more mainstream-minded teenager by winning multiple awards in Rolling Stone / Cream / Circus polls ("Neil Peart better than Jon Bohnam! Damn, what are these dipsh*ts smoking?") and making the case of craftsmanship over career arc. If there was ever a bane to every fist-pumping bong banger's existence, it was the tame trio from Toronto (or thereaboots).
So imagine how surprising it is to find Rush: Rush in Rio one of the great concert films of all time and an amazing musical document of a pretty gosh darn splendid band all rolled into one. Recorded in 2003 at the band's very last show in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this document to dedication, this testament to tenacity and temerity, is like visual energy: one viewing and you are suddenly filled with the hyperactive heart of this stalwart band. Currently, this unbelievably talented trio find themselves unstuck in musical time, balancing between the jam handiness of Phish and the pre-programmed computer thunk of today's punk funk monk junk. Rush doesn't get a great deal of radio airplay yet still manage to find significant pop culture resonance (Phillip J. Fry loaded up his trusty Rush mix tape when he took on aliens in Futurama). And frankly, all the foolish falderal from the Me Decade has long since dissolved into a conglomeration of good will. Rush have earned the right to be considered a great band, not merely because they can actually play. Indeed, in our current climate of "looks good, sounds bad, who cares" American idleness, "performers" who can actually live up to the verb orientation of that word are all but a rarity. And dammit, Rush can play: maybe in an over-rehearsed, over thought out mechanical manner, but when they want to bring the noise, they can climb the tower of power like no other.
Rush in Rio is a wonderful experience, the kind of concert you wish you could have attended in your youth. Like Stop Making Sense, it captures a rock band as a unified force and then uses close-ups and a narrowing focus to highlight individual personalities and quirks. Rush plays for nearly three hours here and the level of vitality never once drags (perhaps their mid-performance intermission—noted on the DVD—helps). The crowd is equally enthusiastic, possibly even more so. Rush had never played Brazil before this series of concerts and the audience drinks in every song like nuclear Red Bull and spits out more animated vigor than the moshing minions in the normal rock rut. They sing along with every song, practically every note (even during the extended instrumental jams). They clap. They chant. They scream with delight and roar with approval over the littlest guitar or drum trick. Lee is in wonderful limelight lead singer mode, moving between keyboards and footlights with bombastic bass in tow. Alex Lifeson, always an underrated guitarist, manages to avoid histrionics to make his solos and crescendos part of the overall effect, not a sore thumb standout. But the real star here is Neil Peart, the ready steady backbeat machine of this talented triumvirate, rendering his drum kit a near melodic instrument. Not since Keith Moon has a drummer manipulated the skins so perfectly and harmoniously. With this concert, the plaudits that Rush received throughout their many years in the business become well deserved and any angry aggressive criticism seems unwarranted.
Truly devoted fans may be depressed that there are not more "classic" or "hit" songs as part of the show (like most touring acts who still record, Rush offers more than a few tracks off their new album). If you're looking for "Fly by Night," "Subdivisions," or "Time Stands Still," the set list will not satisfy you. However, the show does have a cohesive feel, like one simmering stew of sonic shrapnel under pressure, only to explode and strike everyone simultaneously. And anyone who follows the band will be slightly upset with the lack of in-depth background material. There is an hour-long documentary about the trip to South America (called, jokingly, The Boys in Brazil) that hints, many times, about the band's lack of activity for almost five years and some "special circumstances" with drummer Peart. A quick look on the Internet provides the information that this package does not: Peart lost both his daughter (to a car accident) and wife (to cancer) within a year of each other in the late '90s. There were rumblings that the band would break up and that the five years between tours and recording took quite a toll on all the members. None of that is here (perhaps wisely, maybe out of respect), but it does raise some questions that there is just no way to answer. The rest of the documentary is interesting since you get a very clear indication of the personalities in the band, the amount of work they do in preparation for shows, and even some of the foibles they evidence moments before taking the stage. Taken in total, it all makes Rush in Rio a phenomenal—if minimally incomplete—musical artifact and proof of an unfairly mocked band in their prime.
DVD fans may be a little less pleased with the group after discovering that the presentation of Rush in Rio is 1.85:1 non-anamorphic! Now, before you get ready to lynch the individual in charge of image mastering, read the following official statement from the band:
The decision to forego an anamorphic version was due to limitations with
some of the cameras used to film the concert. The majority of the concert was
filmed in a 16:9 Digibeta format but due to the sensitivity of having cameramen
distracting Neil during the show, mini remote cameras were used around him that
could only be recorded in a 4:3 format..
It is this fact, and this fact only, which keeps the transfer (and the DVD overall) from getting a higher score. If they had managed to find a way to make this bright, colorful, detailed, and rich image anamorphic, the DVD would rate in the very high 90s. As it stands, the lack of a legitimate widescreen image is a sad but true fact. The sound, however, will blow you away. Between the virtuosity of the performances, the crowd enthusiasm, and the near perfect mix, the disc is an aural delight that creates the feeling of you being right there, sweating and stomping along with the Brazilian crowd. While a commentary or straight set of interviews would have been nice, the documentary included on the second disc is insightful, funny, and occasionally moving. There is also an option on three songs to use the "multi-angle" facet of your DVD player to control the edit of the presentation. It's fun and fascinating to mix and match the shots.
If you always hated Rush, this DVD will instantly change your mind. If you always loved Rush, then why haven't you already bought this package? Rush in Rio is that rarity, a concert film that actually compels you to become a fan, to experience the same heartfelt passion that those enthusiasts of Canada's greatest rock act do. So forget Geddy's eunuch on helium howl, Alex's pageboy prance, or Neil's rhythmic Ayn Randomness. Simply put Rush in Rio on and let great music and musicianship do what they do best. And no one, frankly, does it better than Rush.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Rounder Records
• "The Boys in Brazil" Documentary
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