Not all live albums are created equal.
Even from the same band.
And, with a bit of a heavy heart (and some procrastination) tackling all of the live Rush albums to determine the worst to first was a venture that made sense but not something I looked forward to.
Listening to Rush no longer evokes the same happiness. Things changed after Neil Peart died. Believe me, I know the ridiculousness in this, considering I never met the man, but he and Rush shape a significant portion of my life.
Forever gone are the days of looking forward to a new Rush album, followed by the usual tour and, of late, the eventual live album. Of late? Rush developed this very cool pattern early in their career by releasing a live album after four studio albums. This four studio one live album release model helped define their discography career through 1998.
When Rush returned in 2002 after a five year hiatus because of the deaths of Peart’s daughter and wife, the band released a live album after every tour. As Peart once said in my own summary: The live Rush album offered a souvenir for those who were there and a way for those who didn’t make it a chance to live it. Therefore, Rush released more live albums in the last 13 years of their career as they did in the first 25.
One issue when tackling “Best of Rush” lists comes from the overly passionately-opinionated fan. One such fan called me at the newspaper to take issue with a small paragraph for my Vapor Trails Tour review in 2002. When I wrote a review of the first date of the R40 tour in Tulsa I got blasted by another such fan who questioned my Rush credentials because I dared to accept Geddy Lee at his word regarding the song “Jacob’s Ladder.” Indeed, it helps to have knowledge of the reviewed band but any impartial writer can review the aspects for any concert.
Another outcome when reviewing Rush occurs when the 70s camp digs their heels against the 80s camp and so on. Perhaps we can all agree that Rush expanded their horizons like no other, and as such, 70s Rush sounds nothing like 80s Rush which sounds different than 90s Rush and 2000s took on a different life of its own.
Anyhow, Rush released 10 live albums. No, I am not counting the 30 years after the fact Grace Under Pressure Tour. Nor will any of the live material used as carrot sticks for the 40th anniversary re-releases count. Just those as part of the natural order of Rush live album releases.
Best Rush Live Albums
Since Rush released 10 live albums this list certainly works as a Top 10 Rush Live Albums list but with no albums excluded. So, I’ll rank them from Worst to First and it was so easy to call out the first one.
10. Rush – Time Machine 2011: Live in Cleveland (2011)
Recorded: April 15, 2011 in Cleveland
Borderline horrible. Just face the facts. Nearly un-listenable. Which adds to the aggravation because it was such a great tour. Time Machine 2011: Live In Cleveland includes the best version of “Closer to the Heart,” a preview of Clockwork Angels and, overall, a most welcome career encapsulation setlist.
But something happened to Geddy Lee’s vocals. It was the first time one could argue Lee no longer had the chops despite considerable evidence to the contrary, like having attended a tour date or even concert reviews (from objective reporters 😉 that indicated otherwise. One rumor emerged that Lee was battling a cold that night. (If you listen closely you get a nasally tone to some of the songs so perhaps some credence exists to this theory.) Whatever the case, Time Machine 2011: Live in Cleveland does not live up to Rush expectations.
Highlights: Hmmm…oh! Moto Perpetuo and O’Malley’s Break
From here you could probably roll the dice and take your chances to rank the rest Live Rush Albums in no particular order but some certainly rise above others in terms of demanding a repeat performance. Like any fan, of any band, fondness for a particular era or sentimental value for an album affects objectivity so I try my best to lay that aside and focus on the quality of musicianship, overall sound and ability to feel the true live Rush experience.
9. Rush – Exit…Stage Left (1981)
Recorded: June 1980 and March 1981
Arguably recorded during the height of their popularity, Exit…Stage Left, released after Moving Pictures, introduced a lot of people to live Rush. Then we found out Exit…Stage Left contained a number of overdubs, or fixes, done after the fact. It was a seminal album, for a time, but eventually I think fell into the dustbin of live releases, at least for those who followed Rush’s career through the end.
My dad bought me this album as a surprise when I declined to pay the extra cost that came with live albums back then and opted only for Signals. Eventually, I wore this album out on cassette and had to buy it again – the only Rush album I listened into the ground. In many respects, it sounded like a studio album and now I know why. But you can’t argue the power of the first three tracks.
Highlights: The Spirit of Radio, Red Barchetta, YYZ
8. Rush – All the World’s A Stage (1976)
Recorded: June 11-13 in Toronto
Quite the opposite of Exit…Stage Left, All the World’s A Stage sounds raw and unfiltered. It was loud and blares like a bootleg at times. I did not get into this album at all like the others, probably for a number of reasons, but All The World’s A Stage comes in at #8 because it gives you the best representation of early Rush live and has a number of songs like “In the End” that never made the setlist again.
I used the opening introduction “Oh won’t you please welcome home…Rush!” as my high school senior quote.
Highlights: In the End, By-Tor and the Snow Dog, Bastille Day
7. Rush – A Show of Hands (1989)
Recorded: Four 1988 dates in New Orleans, Phoenix, San Diego, and Birmingham, England; “Mystic Rhythms” and “Witch Hunt” in East Rutherford, NJ in 1986
Concluding the four album stretch of Signals, Grace Under Pressure, Power Windows and Hold Your Fire, A Show of Hands captured most of the songs from the Hold Your Fire Tour and was a gem, at the time. I always thought this album was a bit overproduced compared to the ones to come, but as it turns out, the band didn’t touch up A Show Of Hands nearly as much as Exit…Stage Left.
A Show of Hands dropped as a surprise, as I was perusing the Rush section one day and discovered… a new Rush album! A short while later, I came down with the stomach flu and my dad bought the album for me. Weird – he bought me two live Rush albums and had absolutely no understanding or interest in why I loved this band so much.
Remember A Show of Fans? A fanzine put out for and by Rush fans. They graciously printed some articles I submitted.
Highlights: Intro into The Big Money, Manhatten Project, Time Stand Still
6. Rush – R40 Live (2015)
Recorded: June 17, 19 in Toronto
Feels like yesterday. I wish I could live it all again. Of course, you get an overarching 40 year snapshot of Rush’s career on the R40 tour all captured on R40 Live. Like the Clockwork Angels Tour live album R40 Live sounds raw and unfiltered, perhaps more so. In some respects almost garage-y, perhaps a bookend to the band’s career hearkening back to the organic All the World’s a Stage.
Overall, Lee sounds no different on this record than the Clockwork Angels Tour release from two years earlier, he still reaches for those higher notes which wasn’t as perceptible in person as it is on the recording, but how fun it is to compare vocals on the first and last live Rush album. But those who were there probably will enjoy this album more than someone trying to experience the R40 tour via R40 Live.
Highlights: How It Is, Losing It, The Camera Eye, Headlong Flight, Far Cry
5. Rush – Clockwork Angels Tour (2013)
Recorded: Nov. 25, 28, 30 in Phoenix, Dallas & San Antonio
Not only do you get most of Clockwork Angels but this tour nearly doubles as the Power Windows tour with Rush playing five songs off that album.
Geddy Lee sounds no worse for the wear but he’s reaching at times for those high notes, again something seemingly only captured “on tape” but not heard if you were there. He tends to draw out some vocal notes much more than earlier shows but overall Clockwork Angels Tour sounds pretty raw and real. Like a refined bootleg. The Clockwork Angeles String Ensemble stars during the second half providing a totally different audio aspect to the Rush live show.
Unlike earlier live albums that sound almost too perfect Clockwork Angels Tour captures subtleties and other nuances from the concert making it “live” but don’t necessarily translate over well via recording. If you attended any concert during the tour you will enjoy the album far more than someone who didn’t, similar to R40 Live. But if you just let it play out you can adapt rather well to the “liveness” and enjoy it for what it is.
A dream setlist.
Highlights: Middletown Dreams, The Wreckers, Headlong Flight, Caravan, The Garden, Grand Designs
4. Rush – Different Stages (1998)
Recorded: Mostly 1997, three songs from 1994
By the time Different Stages was released fans were in limbo as to Rush’s future. Opening the album sleeve, the words “Suddenly…you were gone…from all the lives you left your mark upon” memorialized Neil Peart’s daughter who died a year earlier and his wife a few months prior to the album’s release. Those words would hit fans hard in 2020 when Peart’s death on January 7 was revealed three days after the fact.
Different Stages was the last of the live albums to follow four studio albums (Presto, Roll the Bones, Counterparts and Test for Echo) and I thought set a benchmark for Rush live albums as it combined the best of the previous three live albums and fully kept the live energy intact. The only live Rush album with 2112 captured in its entirety.
Highlights: Dreamline, 2112, Bravado, Animate
3. Rush – Snakes & Arrows Live (2008)
Recorded: Nov. 16-17, 2007 in Rotterdam, Netherlands
I recall watching Geddy Lee singing during one of the shows and thinking something was different. I later read, I believe from Neil Peart, that Lee was not just singing, he was performing. Yep, that was it. An amazing tour and the show at The Gorge ranks tied for #1 as not only the best Rush concert I ever saw but the best concert I ever saw.
For whatever reason, I love the opening “Limelight” chord from Alex Lifeson as he lets it hangs a bit before the band breaks in for the full song. Snakes & Arrows Live records nearly the entire Snakes & Arrows album but you can definitely get a sense, at least on this recording, of Lee’s vocal range change. It was imperceptible during the concerts but comes through somewhat on this album, however, Snakes & Arrows Live offers the last of the live albums with classic signature Geddy Lee vocals as the coming five year break clearly affected his range.
You do get a number of rare old school Rush songs that surprised many including “Entre Nous,” “Digital Man” and “Circumstances.”
Highlights: Entre Nous, The Main Monkey Business, Working Them Angels, Hope
2. Rush – R30: 30th Anniversary Tour (2005)
Recorded: Sept. 24, 2004 in Frankfurt, Germany
The 30th Anniversary Tour came on the heels of Rush’s only cover album Feedback and the setlist didn’t stray too far from the Vapor Trails Tour, the big exception for R30: 30th Anniversary Tour being songs off Feedback.
Rush opened those shows with the “R30 Overture,” an outstanding instrumental compilation consisting of “Finding My Way,” “Anthem,” “Bastille Day,” “A Passage to Bangkok,” “Cygnus X-1,” and “Hemispheres.” They also kept the fantastic acoustic version of “Resist” from the Vapor Trails Tour following Peart’s drum solo which they bled into the cover “Heart Full of Soul” for a time before Peart returns to the stage and breaks in midway. It’s awesome.
Highlights: R30 Overture, Between the Wheels, Force Ten, Resist, Heart Full of Soul
1. Rush In Rio (2003)
Recorded: Nov. 23, 2002 in Rio de Janeiro; “Between Sun & Moon” – Sept. 27, 2002 in Phoenix; “Vital Signs” Oct. 19, 2002 in Quebec City.
The return of Rush! Rush In Rio captured the band’s first foray into South America that put a close on the Vapor Trails Tour. The crowd takes the limelight on this release as you can hear the “singing” during “YYZ” and the often explosion of energy during various aspects of songs. Rush In Rio was the first Rush live album recorded in one take and not a compilation of recordings over numerous dates as the other live releases. Geddy Lee holds his full vocal range, this was the first Rush live album that invited you back to the actual tour, if attended, and the audio has the band’s mastery and expertise on full display.
If you cannot understand the joy and genius of Rush after their acoustic, campfire version of “Resist” with Lee and Alex Lifeson playing while seated as Neil Peart rested after his drum solo, then you’ll never get it.
Highlights: Resist, YYZ, Earthshine, The Pass