Rush’s “Clockwork Angels Tour” Straddles The 80’s and The Now
Long ago, a live album from Rush was, for many of us fans, on par with a studio release from our heroes. They followed a pattern of a live album following four studio albums, and so it was from “All The World’s A Stage” through “Different Stages.” We’d make sure to tune into rock radio hoping to hear cuts from the new live album and we were certainly in front of the record shop on release day to snap up a copy to hear our favorite band bring it live.
Setlists aside, we remember “All The World’s A Stage” for showcasing the raw power of a young power trio on the “2112” tour, we remember “Exit…Stage Left” as being the slick, overdubbed effort chronicling the “Moving Pictures” tour (ever notice that the crowd cheer on “The Spirit Of Radio” is the same as the cheer following the song?), we remember “A Show Of Hands” capping off the synth/sequencer-heavy era of the 80’s, and we remember “Different Stages Live” as a possible swan song for the band following the “Test For Echo” tour and the well-documented tragedies in the personal life of Neil Peart.
Since reforming with “Vapor Trails,” Rush has made live albums a regular post-tour offering, and so for this fan, they’re a bit hit and miss with me as they don’t differ a ton beyond the new music and them throwing in select tunes from the past such as “Natural Science, The Camera Eye,” and others. I own “Rush In Rio” and “R30,” but have skipped the last two just as I skipped those tours, though I *have* bought the DVD’s knowing their live show is as much to be seen as to be heard.
With “Clockwork Angels Tour,” my interest was more in the 80’s material than the new material as I was one of the few who really didn’t embrace the “Clockwork Angels” album. Producer Nick Raskulinecz, a professed Rush fanboy, has been good at coaxing great performances from a band that could go on autopilot at this point of their career, but the one trap this fan thinks he falls into is attempting to pull them all the way back their more raw, power trio days, playing up major chords and hard rock concept of Rush instead of the more epic, progressive route they took in the late 70’s and the melodic route they took during the 80’s.
“Clockwork Angels” saw Rush executing an album-length concept for the first time, and by its release, I found the concept a bit tired from the release of the first two tracks a few years before, the tour that followed those two tracks, and the companion book. I honestly gave “Clockwork Angels” a fair shake, but aside from “Caravan” and the incredible finale that was “The Garden,” the album really didn’t resonate with me, though of course, a decent Rush album is better than most bands’ best efforts, right?
“Clockwork Angels Tour” – let’s refer to it as “CAT” – kicks off with 1982’s “Subdivisions,” the leadoff track from “Signals” and a change in how Rush concerts start, followed by another album-opener in “The Big Money,” which like “Subdivisions” is a faithful reading all the way down to the synth patches, Simmons drum patches and all the keyboard “touches” found on “Power Windows.”
Rush continues its march through the 80’s leadoff tracks with “Force Ten” from 1987’s “Hold Your Fire,” which along with the previous two tracks are staples of previous tours. With so many Rush live albums to judge “CAT” against and knowing they’re playing better than ever, it really comes down to setlists and the few ways the songs differ from the originals, for Rush rarely ventures away from the recorded versions of their songs. With “Force Ten,” Alex Lifeson treats us to a guitar solo that’s much more involved and extended than the album version.
The 80’s theme really kicks in with “Grand Designs,” the second track off “Power Windows” and likely not played live since their 1986 tour. Had I attended this outing, this would have been the point of the show where I’d have jumped out of my seat. “Grace Under Pressure” is next represented as “The Body Electric” continues the show’s romp through the 80’s. It doesn’t seem to hold up terribly well live until the solo section, where it’s full gallop by the band.
With a rhythm undoubtedly inspired from Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” (did I just say that?), we’re treated to “Territories,” which us old-timers know as the first track on side two of “Power Windows.” It’s a grooving track and the band does a fine job with this reading, especially Peart, who has quite the rhythmic workout with all the percussion he triggers during the song.
From there it’s yet another 80’s favorite, “The Analog Kid,” which I believe saw it’s revival during the Test For Echo tour. The song served as a scorching counterpoint to the lush “Subdivisions” on “Signals” and, as expected, Lifeson is fierce with his solo on this one. I’ve said this for years now, but with each tour, Rush simply get better and tighter with every outing, if that’s possible for band some 40-plus years into its career.
The band then jumps into the 90’s with what I think is one of their finest tunes in “Bravado” from “Roll The Bones.” The high notes following the solo prove to be a strain for Geddy Lee’s voice, which is actually somewhat contrasted by his sampled background vocals, likely taken from the album. We stay with “Roll The Bones” via “Where’s My Thing,” featuring Lee vamping a sweet bass solo before the familiar intro from Lifeson gets the band going. Midway through, Peart jumps into one of several drum solos in the show. Though the man who my main drumming influence growing up has, IMO, long since been leapfrogged by other drummers in progressive rock, his solos are a show unto themselves. “Far Cry” ends the set, after which the volume fades.
Signaling the start of “Clockwork Angels,” Rush dives into “Caravan” and we’re treated to band’s string ensemble, marking the first time ever the band was joined by backing musicians – if you can really call them that – for a full tour. They help bring tracks such as “Caravan” and the album’s title track – one of my favorites – to life. The band tears through the standout tracks from “Clockwork Angels” with fire; as is the case with many Rush tracks, they take on an additional energy when played live. Peart breaks up “Headlong Flight” with a cool drum solo break before Lifeson gives us the “By-Tor”-esque solo.
One of the highlights of any Rush tour is something new to our ears, and boy, do we get it here with “Peke’s Repose,” a lovely guitar solo from Lifeson that leads us into “Halo Effect.” The solo is awash in effects but simply sparkles. They continue driving through “Clockwork Angels” and finally bring us to “The Garden.” Lee’s voice seems worn by this point in the show, but it’s a magnificent song, one that I think they could end their career on, though I suspect they’re not done yet.
The string section sticks around after the “Clockwork Angels” set to add flourishes to “Dreamline” from “Roll The Bones,” then we get what is arguably the most creative and melodic (!) solo of Peart’s career in “The Percussor.” Something tells me he’s got at least an EP in him of this sort of melodic drumming.
After revisiting the 80’s with “Red Sector A,” we get another highlight with the string section as they help take “YYZ” to another level, then the band finishes off the set with the trifecta of landmark tracks in “The Spirit Of Radio,” “Tom Sawyer” and the bookends of “2112.” The album includes bonus tracks including a soundcheck recording of “Limelight” along with live takes of “Middletown Dreams” – one of my favorite tunes from the 80’s – “The Pass” and finally “Manhattan Project.” “Power Windows” was certainly represented on this tour, huh?
If I have any criticism to make – and this is likely beyond his control – it’s that sadly, Geddy Lee’s singing is starting to morph into some sort of falsetto, likely from age and the toll of so many shows. I started noticing this watching video of the “Time Machine” tour, but it’s all over this album.
For this Rush fan who cut his teeth on the band with “Moving Pictures,” “Clockwork Angels Tour” works beautifully for me as the band clearly wished to revisit their 80’s catalog. The “Clockwork Angels” tracks are delivered with gusto and augmented beautifully by the strings, plus we’re treated to instrumental surprises by all three guys along the way. With this tour’s emphasis on the 80’s one wonders if the next tour – if there is one – might focus on tracks from “Presto,” “Roll The Bones,” the largely-ignored-but-fabulous “Counterparts,” and “Test For Echo.” Until then, this release with its bonus track are well worth picking up.