As Rush releases its latest album, Different Stages, the band finds itself in a different, and difficult, stage.
Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart just recapped 25 years together with the double live CD, which has gone gold since hitting stores two weeks ago.
Next year will actually mark 30 years since singer-bassist Lee and guitarist Lifeson hooked up to play as teenagers.
But, as Lee confides in a recent interview in the downtown headquarters of Rush's own label, Anthem, it's "an anniversary we're not really celebrating."
Rather, Lee's thoughts are with drummer-lyricist Peart, 46, who suffered a double dose of tragedy when his daughter was killed in a car accident a year ago and his wife died of cancer last spring.
It's a painful and personal topic that Lee hesitates to discuss.
Questions of another album and tour are moot, though judging from a recent string of inquiries we've received from Rush fans, there are concerns for the band's future.
"My concern is for Neil and that's it," says a cool but sombre Lee. "My heart breaks for him in what he's gone through, and I can safely speak for all of us that we're all concerned for him as a friend, and that's it. This is my friend, and he's hurting. We're all hurting. To think about anything of a practical nature is inappropriate.
"There's been a lot of support (from fans), but the most anyone can do for Neil is give him the time he needs."
A graceful dedication to the drummer's family inside the Different Stages CD package captures Rush's feelings best: "Suddenly ... you were gone ... from all the lives you left your mark upon."
As Peart recovers privately, the album goes a long way in celebrating the remarkable interplay that makes him, Lee and Lifeson famous.
Lee compiled and co-produced the disc, honing hundreds of hours of live recordings from 60 shows on two tours into a cohesive document of a latter-day Rush concert.
A limited edition version includes a third disc, recorded live at London's Hammersmith Odeon in February, 1978.
All told, the collection is a musical signpost -- a way for Rush to take stock of a prolific career.
"A live album represents a lot of opportunities," Lee says. "It's an opportunity to record new music. It's also a chance to re-evaluate, in the context of all of our music, the old favourites.
"It raises the question, 'If this was the last live album I ever did, would this song be worthy of it?' You learn a lot about your own writing. That's a real benefit."
Rush have no doubt learned more about themselves than most bands.
Different Stages comes as part of Rush's "weird habit" of releasing a live disc every four albums.
According to Lee, the tradition started by accident. In 1981, the band narrowly decided to release the studio album, Moving Pictures, before the live Exit ... Stage Left. The former record went on to spawn the classic Tom Sawyer and sell four million copies -- their biggest-ever hit up 'til then. The latter was seen as a good-luck charm.
"It was a pretty good decision, in retrospect," Lee deadpans.
Then again, the virtuoso bass player has a lot of Rush experts to answer to when it comes to making a record.
Rush's vast following stretches back through many stages: Their days as a cult band fusing complex progressive rock with mystical lyrics, an era captured neatly in the tight grooves of Stages' Hammersmith Odeon set; their graduation to an uncompromising and sophisticated trio capable of great -- some would say surprising -- commercial success and musical influence.
"It's hard to put us in context with the rest of the music world," says Lee.
"We've always floated along on this separate kind of slipstream. We were never really aware of how weird we were. In our early days we were naïve, and in our later days maybe blindly impractical.
"And thank goodness for that. It's been a key to our sound that we can do these things under the mantle of hard rock and make it still accessible and viable."
Lee says the best way to please the fans with an album like Different Stages is not to try too hard.
"If I ask 10 Rush fans what songs they want to have in a set, I can almost guarantee there would be 10 different lists.
"I just compared my own wish list with a reality list."
The result features staples like Tom Sawyer, YYZ, 2112 and a rare improvisational run at Closer To The Heart alongside tunes from later records, like 1996's Test For Echo. It works, but Lee knows he stands to be second-guessed.
Where is Subdivisions? New World Man?
"There's no winning," he answers with a laugh.
"Sometimes you just have to do what you want to and let the chips fall where they may ..."
And move on to a new stage. It's all part of the work-in-progress that Rush continues to be.
"This record is about what our personality as a band has become, and all those various parts good and bad," says Lee. "We're so tied to what we've become as a band, and a family. And most of what we have become we owe to touring 250 days a year and being on a different stage every night."
THE RUSH FILE
Then: 1969 -- 15-year-olds Alex Zivojinovich, aka Lifeson, and Gary Lee Weinrib, aka Geddy Lee, form a band in Toronto with drummer John Rutsey.
Neil Peart replaces Rutsey and brings his songwriting skills on board in time for Rush's 1974 self-titled debut.
Now: When Lee belts out that "all this machinery making modern music can still be open-hearted " on The Spirit Of Radio, he still means it. "It's relevant," he says of the 1980 anthem, which took aim at the inherent lameness of commercial rock radio.
"Maybe even more so, because we live in a time that is so encroached upon by corporate psychology that there's almost nothing we come in contact with that isn't tagged or sponsored by something. The whole corporate battle is over, and we lost.
"Once in a while we have to question, 'What should the spirit of radio be?' What is it there for other than to pummel you with the same song once every hour?"