‘Time crumbles things; everything grows old under the power of Time and is forgotten through the lapse of Time.’ – Aristotle
It must be hard to be an aging lead singer. I remember first noticing how the toils of time can wear on a singer’s voice when watching The Who perform ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ from their 1989 Tommy reunion tour. Daltrey was forced to cut short his money shot at the very last refrain (“Loooooooooooooooove!”) as well as drop it an octave – there was just no way 45 year old Daltrey could hit the notes that his 28 year old self could.
It’s also hard in face of technical prowess – even aging rockstars can keep their chops in shape and stay in form. Case in point: Geddy Lee is still one goddam badass bass player. Sure, Lifeson and Peart are still great, but Lifeson was never truly flashy, and Peart is beginning to sag a bit. But Lee is still in top form, which the new Rush video Clockwork Angels Tour clearly demonstrates. If you want to see a band at the peak of its skills nearly 40 years along, there is no better place to go than Rush: pulling from their extensive back catalog (yet strangely focusing on 1985′s Power Windows, to my delight) as well as performing most of their recent Clockwork Angels album, the band is still in top form, with an extensive light and video show, a high-end stage production, and even a string section to complement the new material. All in all, the band is just running on all cylinders. Except…
When The Police and Genesis reunited for their world tours in 2007-2008, it was clear that Sting and Phil Collins were no longer the singers they used to be, and they dropped the keys on many songs to accommodate their limited vocal range. Rather than try to force the songs they couldn’t sing and have them come out strained or off-key, they opted to change the songs to fit their aging voice. Geddy Lee needs to seriously think about doing this same thing.
I would guess that no criticism of Lee’s voice would phase him at this point. Having endured a lifetime of negative feedback for his screeching voice, and yet still coming out on top as one of the most influential and lasting rock bands ever, he has earned the right to say a big “fuck you” to anyone who thought his voice wasn’t strong enough to carry the band. And I agree – his voice is one of the reasons Rush is so unique and special, and Lee has earned the right to disregard everyone who tried to make his voice into a liability.
But now here we are, with Lee just turning 60 years old, and, really, his voice just ain’t cutting it anymore. This became horribly obvious on their previous tour video, Time Machine, in which they played the entire Moving Pictures album. In what should have been the quintessential Rush performance, Lee strained to hit many of the notes, which are now well out of his range, and the results range from head-shaking to cringe-inducing. In the end, I can’t even listen to that record anymore because he misses so many of the notes so consistently.
Now, some of that is due to the specific night the band plays and the strength and power of Lee’s voice on that particular night. It also depends on the songs and where the melodies Lee sings fall into in his now-limited range. I watched the new Clockwork Angels Tour video with hesitation, hoping that Lee was having a better night and overall tour when they recorded this video in Dallas. As mentioned, everything else about the video is a near-perfect experience for a Rush fan (the perfect experience being actually attending the show). But once again, Lee’s voice is the sole liability, and, on about half the tracks, it’s just too obvious to ignore.
And it’s not like they’re playing super old stuff – 80s songs like “Force Ten” and “The Body Electric” are just in that sweet spot (or should I say sour spot) just outside of Lee’s current range, and he really has to strain to his many notes. Even some of the new material (like my personal favorite “Clockwork Angels”) has some notes that are just hard for Lee to hit. In all, about a third of the songs that would otherwise be excellent renditions are impacted by Lee’s inability to sing his parts.
At this point, Rush has earned the right to do things however they want. Ever since they kicked off the latest ten years of their career, they have solidified their reputation as the “world’s biggest cult band,” with three excellent studio records, extensive world tours, a heartwarming and honest documentary of their career, and final acceptance by the establishment (which they didn’t really need) by their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Forty years on, Rush is still delivering the goods, and we fans have very little to complain about.
I just wish there were some way to get Lee and the boys to change the keys of the songs. Perhaps it’s just not possible (or it’s too much work) with their intricate arrangements. Or perhaps the band is locked in a George Lucas-like box of denial where it’s the elephant in the room (like Jar Jar Binks) that no one talks about. Or maybe Lee just doesn’t give a shit about it because he doesn’t have to. Rush fans are extremely loyal lot, and we’re going to continue to show up in droves as long as Rush keeps touring. After a lifetime of proving that his voice was his voice, no one else’s, and having the band become successful despite what everyone else said, maybe Lee is content to just keep singing the way he always has, limited vocal range be damned.
Even so, I just hope it doesn’t get any worse. Not that will stop me from buying their albums or seeing them on tour…