Vapor Trails Over Rio

By Martin Popoff, BW&BK, December 2003, transcribed by John Patuto

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Yes, in our metal neck of the woods, Iron Maiden's Rock In Rio more or less sets the standard for this sort of South American Rock Shock of a sunburn. Halford also power metalized the lower continent for live Insurrection, and throughout the years many others have fessed up to succumbing to Latin festival madness. I even recall, during the numbers talk circulating around Toronto's recent SARS Relief Show, that the largest concert ever mounted was said to be Rod Stewart, on the beach in Rio, shagging it out with three million crazy Brazilians, which would amount to, by my calculations, six million 'Hot Legs' give or take a peg.

Which brings us to the self-professed "stay at home" Rush, an insular band by many standards, especially on the subject at hand, given that the band hasn't played Europe in ten years, has played a total of four shows in Japan, has never played anywhere else in Asia, and has never made it to South America, in 35 years at the top of the prog metal heap.

And the fact that the band pulled 125,000 giddy Geddy fans over three Brazilian shows - documented, of course, on the triple CD and double DVD set called Rush In Rio - doesn't mean eyes are all that much wider at hitting exotic locales the world over.

"Well, you know, at this stage, I'm not so sure," cautions guitarist Alex Lifeson, on thoughts of mounting a trek through darkest Africa, populous India, or desolate Mongolia. "If there was someplace we could go to where we could have the kind of response we had in Brazil - which quite frankly, we had no idea we had that kind of popularity there - then it would be worth it. But at this stage in our career, to go to a country that is exotic, just to go there, and to play for a couple thousand people, is really not something we're interested in. You know, our show is big, it's costly, we don't like to compromise it, we don't like to do festival sorts of things. The occasional special event, yes, OK, but we like to be in control, and we like to present the band in a certain way. So it has to be in the right place."

But Brazil on the other hand, turned out to be well worth the trip, despite technical difficulties (more on that later). "It's surprising how in tune they are with everything, all forms of music," muses Alex. "They don't speak a lot of English down there, yet the audience was singing the whole night. And they very easily sung along with songs from Vapor Trails as they did from 2112 or Moving Pictures. I went down thinking that Brazil would be, not backwards, but yes, lacking. But it was really the opposite. It's a very advanced culture. They've been around longer than we have. And I think in a lot of ways they are the pride of South America, certainly a city like Sao Paulo which is technologically advanced and the center of commerce and technology for Brazil."

"There's a little more of that Latin influence," ventures Lifeson, with respect to dealings on a business front. "Things that we kind of consider important here, work, efficiency, those sorts of things, exist to a lesser degree there. Their priorities are more family, friends, having a good time, having a good meal, enjoying each other's company, much like it is going to Italy or Spain or something like that. We could learn a lesson from that."

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And yes, those technical difficulties. "Yeah, all hell broke loose every day there," laughs bass-plunker and yowler Geddy Lee (rounding out the band - on drums, a guy called Neil Peart). "You know, you never know what you're dealing with when you go to a country like that. They always tell you ... when they ask, you tell them what you need technically, they say 'Oh yes, we understand.' That doesn't mean you're going to have it (laughs). That just means they understand what you want (laughs). This was the fine line of semantics that we discovered. So every day there was a new surprise, in terms of the technical aspects of getting the show up, let alone handling 20 cameras and a recording truck. And the recording truck, by normal contemporary standards, was quite basic. And I think the same is true with a lot of the photographic equipment they were using. But they had some good cameramen and they had a great director and a really good crew and a lot of experience in the periphery. But again, you just never know what's going to happen. And on that particular day, we hadn't counted on it being such a circuitous route from Sao Paulo to Rio. It took the truck about eight hours to get there. And because the shows are so much later ... I mean, we didn't go on in South America until 10:30 or something like that, and we played a three hour show, so do the math. And of course, the show in Sao Paulo, the previous night, was raining through the show so the gear was all wet. So they were loading trucks in the middle of the night, in the rain, and then driving eight hours. By the time they got the first piece of equipment on the stage, it was about two in the afternoon. And we usually arrive at six in the morning and the show is ready to go by six in the evening. So they were up against it."

Alex comments further on the inclemency. "We had rain, actually, on the first two nights. In Puerto Allegra, which was the first gig in the south, it was raining hard. By the time we went on, it had stopped, but everything was wet. The stage was wet, our carpet was wet, some of the gear was wet. There was a problem with the console; it got wet. We managed to get it all going and working; it was a real miracle. The next gig in Sao Paulo ... you know, we do a three hour show and we split it with a little intermission between the two sets. Towards the end of the first set, it started to rain. And during the second set, it rained. And I don't mean it rained on the audience and we watched them get wet. It rained everywhere. And the wind was blowing towards the stage. So really, all of us, including Neil, were soaked; water just pouring off us."

In the old days, this would cause a cessation of the show, due to impending electrocution. Why did that not happen with Rush on that stormy night of natural science?

"Well, the advent of radios makes things a little less dangerous up there. So you're not really worried about making a connection from one point of electricity to another, i.e. from the guitar amplifiers to the mic P.A. So we just carried through. But toward the end of the set, my pedal board started to short out. Some of Neil's electronic kit started to short out. We made it through that set, and the following day, which was the following gig, in Rio, it was a long drive. They just started setting up when we would normally be doing our soundcheck. So no soundcheck, no line check, no video line check. There were problems with the power; requirements had not been met. There were problems with the staging. The audio truck for the recording of the DVD was ... boy (laughs), it was a relic from another era. Everything that could have gone wrong, the potential was there. And we managed to go on at 10:30 and the show went off without a hitch; the camera setup for the DVD; that all worked. It was amazing that we got away with it. All the equipment problems we had the night before had miraculously sorted themselves out, thanks to our terrific crew."

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Fortunately laundry services were just as accessible in Brazil as they were all over the North American tour. "There were just the three; we never had to buy replacements," explains Alex with respect to the bone-white dryers tumbling away on stage left (your right) on the last tour. "George Steinert on our crew went out and got them. He sourced them down and kind of fixed them up a little bit, took the heating elements out of them so that they were working but not heating. And he installed aircraft landing lights in them so that when you opened them up, they glowed. And you had to put Canadian quarters in to keep them going. And every night we tried to have guests up onstage, to pump quarters into the machines to keep them running."

"Certainly 'Resist', going from an electric version to an acoustic one, is probably the most transformed song," notes Alex delving into the collections monstrous 31 track width and girth. "We always wanted to do something acoustic but we weren't quite sure; we always resisted the urge to do that. We didn't want to do an unplugged thing which always seemed like such a trendy thing to do so we avoided it. But we thought it would be a nice break; in terms of the three hour show, we thought it would be refreshing. Plus, we thought it would, depending on its placement, give Neil an opportunity to catch his breath after his drum solo. And to do it with quite a dynamic shift. So we worked on a version of that which was kind of like a folk version. And I thought we pulled it off well. Geddy and I both had a lot of fun just breaking down for those few minutes."

"We brought some stuff back like 'By-Tor And The Snowdog' and 'Working Man' and they were truncated versions of the originals. But they were pretty true to their original form. Thinking back on most of the set, I would say that we always prided ourselves on being close to the record but with that added element of it being live, with the energy that you create onstage. It was always a disappointment to me to go and see my favourite bands and not hear the original versions of the songs. That always seemed like a bit of a cop out to me. So from an early point, we always wanted to reproduce what we did in the studio fairly faithfully."

"I don't think we've played 'Working Man' since about 1976, or '77," continues Alex. "So it was a real treat to bring that back. We weren't sure about it. It such a simple, kind of straight rock song, but it ended up being a great opportunity to jam and to really play your heart out, for all of us. So it was quite fun to play that."

As it turned out, 'Closer To The Heart', the pop diversion from the decidedly serious and unpoppy A Farewell To Kings was a must add. "Well, that song was a hit single in certain places around the world, just by accident," notes Geddy. "In Britain it was a Top 20 song and in parts of America also a Top 20 song. And apparently in South America as well, because we had to bring that out for this tour. We weren't playing it on this tour, but in Mexico City we got so many requests for it we had to relearn it during soundcheck that day, to play in the show. The same thing was true in Brazil. But 'YYZ', especially in Brazil, that was one of the audience highlights of the show. As soon as we started playing that song, the whole crowd started bobbing up and down in time with it. And at one point they're waving their arms doing a 'we are not worthy' thing in sync, kind of a mini-wave (laughs). And they were singing along. If you listen on the album, you can hear them singing along with it. What was amazing about the Brazilian crowds, when we played some of our instrumental stuff, they would be singing parts, like they had written parts for it on top of some of the music. I don't know whether they were soccer chants. It was amazing to me that they were singing well and adding new parts."

I asked Alex about band preparations for the onslaught that is three hours of Rush live in the flesh, in communion with the biggest convention of air drummers you will ever witness anywhere...

"Well, you'd be very surprised. Backstage at a Rush show, and when I say backstage, I mean the dressing room, is much like a library, before show (laughs). It's very quiet. Neil is usually sitting in a corner reading. There's no psych-up. We get dressed, we chat a little bit about whatever and somebody comes and gets us and we go on. There's no group hug or prayer or anything like that. We just do our thing. But before that yeah, Neil will practice for anywhere from 20 minutes to half an hour before the show, on a little practice kit, one of those five piece practice kits that's just pads. But he pounds the crap out of them and that's his way of warming up. It's basically like him doing a drum solo for 20 minutes. He really plays hard on the thing. I like to do the same. I like to warm up for a minimum of half an hour before the show. Depending on my mood, sometimes it's an hour. Geddy, no, not so much. I don't think I saw him practice once on the last tour before the show. Although toward the end of the tour he had some tendonitis in his hand, so I do remember actually, him spending a little time just warming up his right hand."

And does the band's form of preparation work? I wondered, given the complexity of the material, if Rush ever experienced musical breakdowns, gaffes that threaten to derail the song at hand.

"Not really," says Alex. "We wear in-ear monitors, so we're very aware of what's going on and where everybody's at in terms of train crashes, is what we call them. But I can't really think of anything on the last tour, although it does happen. I'd say it happens twice, maybe three times in the course of a tour, where suddenly somebody does something, and everybody is lost, and it sounds like very outside jazz, and then just immediately goes back to the song (laughs). 'Natural Science' is always a real challenge. There's a lot of intricate, hard playing in it. The tempo's quite upbeat. You sort of step up into it and just go right until the end. So that's always a challenge for all of us. And when we play that well, it really feels great."

Geddy, faced with the same question, er, blames Alex! "Well, Alex was having a problem with a cameraman in the first set and he started freaking out at this cameraman and then he lost some concentration and had a gaffe in one of the songs, during one of the solos. And after the set, we had to kind of cool him off and remind him that you've got to forget about that; you can't let those things bother you during a show that you're filming. Because there's just no sense looking pissed off on tape. And he got the message. But it's very hard. There was so much going against us that day. Given the fact that they arrived late, we didn't have a soundcheck. The camera crew didn't have a camera check. The sound crew didn't have a soundcheck. So when we hit the stage about 10:30, we were going on cold; everyone was going on cold. And to add to the confusion, there were all these extra lights that the camera people had put on stage without discussing with us. So there were these wires running across the front of the stage that were inhibiting our ability to go to the front of the stage and ham it up with the crowd, kind of thing. And that was really disconcerting for me, because I'm used to just roaming around and having some fun. And when I'd venture to the edge the stage, I suddenly had to look at my feet to make sure I didn't trip over these stupid cables. The way you want to record a show should be ideal and the last thing you should be thinking about is all this crap, so this was pretty fucked-up in terms of our ability to stay calm, cool and collected."

I asked Geddy what were the toughest songs in the set for him personally to pull off.

"Well, all the new material, generally, requires the most concentration. Because, as a bassist and a singer, those songs aren't as firmly entrenched in my memory banks, so it usually requires a huge amount of concentration for me to keep my bass lines grooving with the drums, to make sure I trigger all the samples with my feet at the right time and to sing in key. And to do all that... you know, even at the end of the 70 date tour, it's still a challenge by the end. Songs like 'One Little Victory' and 'Earthshine' and 'Secret Touch'; they are, by far the toughest part of the show for me. The issue is playing them, singing and triggering all at the same time. Some of those songs have very complex backing vocal effects, loops, that are put on synthesizer that I have to trigger at the right time, otherwise they sound fucked-up (laughs). So I'm basically triggering some vocal effects while I'm singing, while I'm playing bass. So it's a bit complicated up there at times (laughs). And if you can't hear it all, you're in big trouble."

Alex relates that only minor concessions are made to the fact that a mere trio has to deliver these mini-labyrinths out there under the lights. "You know, we might have eliminated some of the keyboard stuff here and there, eliminated some of the vocal harmonies that Geddy does. I try to help out as much as I can in that department, and we do have some samples. But he really loves to layer his vocals and he does a terrific job at that. But those are some of the things that are expense-able live. I don't think they get missed given the energy of the live show. After doing it for so many years ... you know, we started the band 35 years ago. It's second nature with us. I mean, it's what we do. Going onstage, for all of us, our heads are in performance mode. You're thinking about where you're maybe speeding up in a certain song or things to look out for from the last gig. We tape every show, so we're constantly updating what's happening with the show. So I guess our approach is a very professional and performance-oriented process before we go on. And then other times you go on and think wow, I can't believe people are paying me to do this (laughs). It's just such a joy and it's so much fun. When you're playing, it's down to business. For us, there's not a lot of room where you cannot be concentrating; you're really inside of what's going on. It's very busy onstage and I find that if you get into the zone, then you're fine. You can sort of sit on top of it. But there are distractions, technical problems, in which case it's very difficult to keep up the concentration. But in terms of the audience and those other sorts of external thoughts, you leave them for other times. Particularly, the last tour was great; we had an amazing time. I thought I played really, really well and the response was terrific. It was nice to do a summer tour. We had never done a summer tour before. In fact, we had come off five very difficult years where we weren't even sure we were going to tour again, which made it that much more special. I don't think we took a single moment for granted on this last tour."

So yeah, as, briefly touched upon the whole Rush In Rio rigmarole was, of course, captured for both audio and DVD release, the latter falling more or less into Geddy's sphere of responsibility. "Well, basically it's the full concert we did in Rio de Janeiro," comments Ged on the visual feast, offering a little behind-the-scenes in the process. "And there are a few added bonus things, like a 20 minute documentary of our trip down to South America. And there are a few little things that are kind of hidden little gems in there, fun for people to discover. We shot the one show only; it was a roll of the dice kind of thing. It was actually the last show of the tour. It wasn't really our first choice. Originally we were scheduled to shoot a show in the United States, on the East Coast. But at the last minute, there were problems with the venue and it suddenly got canceled. And we just kind of said, well, what are we going to do? Because we had planned to do it as more of a kind of high-definition photography experiment using really state-of-the-art gear. And then we changed to a completely different kind of video, and it was suggested, why don't we shoot one of the shows in South America, because those shows will have more colour and kind of a concept to it, rather than just be the band performing in a technical environment. It will be this interesting slice of life. So we had to throw everybody into panic mode. The production house, and actually my brother, who is in the film business and has done a lot of work with us and various companies, took over as executive ... kind of a production overseer, coordinating all the various departments. And they set-up a production in Brazil which was quite interesting (laughs), a combination of bringing down our own people and our own cameras and using what we could find there."

"Well, the DVD was a lot of work," adds Alex, closing the door on further Rush rushing around in the immediate future. "When we came off the road, Geddy and I sort of decided that if there were any kind of video decisions to be made, he would look after that. Any audio decisions that needed to be made, I would look after that. We started mixing it, and I ended up ... I thought I'd be in every other day for a couple of hours. I was in the studio every day from noon until four in the morning for eight weeks. So it was a lot of work. The original intention was just to do the 5.1, and then Atlantic decided they wanted to release the CD, so there was that added, and it was the whole show again, in a stereo version. You know, the work just piled up and piled up and piled up and there was so much of it. So I worked really hard this past summer, a summer where I just expected to kick back. Certainly Geddy's not doing anything and Neil's not doing anything. And no, I'm not doing anything either (laughs). But you know, the weather is getting a little cooler and I'd like to get back into the studio and just mess around. My son and I keep talking about doing some more work together. So who knows? I might start working on putting something together, but no definite plans. The previous two years have been very hectic for us. So it's nice to just kind of have this falloff. We're just now beginning talks with respect to what we want to do next year, whether we want to write, or whether we want to go back on the road. There's an offer coming in for us to go out on the road and do a 30th anniversary tour. And we're seriously considering that. We had such a great time on the tour so we're thinking about maybe going back out on the road. And that's the first time we've done something like that without a new release. So, you know, we have to think about that first. One way or another, we're going to work next year, whether it's a record or playing live ..."

"OK, OK, we'll go ... " Geddy Lee relates the tale of how Brazil got Rush to say "I do."

"Usually we get this kind of yearly request to go play the Rock In Rio festival. And that's in January. And every time they held one, and they've invited us, we've been either in the studio recording and you can't just stop that and do a one-off gig like that. Or we've been not on the road at the time or not working; it's just been bad timing all these years. And the promoter was just determined to get us there this year, so he kept negotiating with us and pleading with us to come down, saying you have no idea your popularity down here, which of course was true. We had respectable record sales but we didn't realize how in much of those countries, the record sales cannot be accounted for because there's such a huge counterfeit record market down there. So you have no way of knowing what you really sell."

Do they make it more comfortable with proper moneys up front, guarantees etc ... ?

"Oh yeah, they promised us they'd pay us a certain amount of money per gig, and they'll pay for our expenses and they'll send us the cash upfront. Our manager, being exceedingly xenophobic and paranoid (laughs), wanted to make sure all these things were in place before he sent us down there. They had guaranteed us upfront. That wasn't a question. And in fact, I don't think we had much doubt about that, quite honestly. Because our agent down there is the same as our agent in Europe and the rest of the world , and he's very experienced. There's no way he's going to connect us with somebody where we're not going to get paid. That wasn't really in doubt. What was in doubt, was whether we were as popular as he said we were, or whether they could actually provide the technical assistance we needed to put on the kind of show that we do. But I had talked to some friends of mine who had played down there in other bands, and other managers and stuff, and people have been doing gigs down there for quite a while. So really, I don't think there was that much to fear."