Shortly after the supporting tour for “Test For Echo” was complete, Neil Peart’s only daughter Selena Taylor was tragically killed in a car accident on her way to college. Devastated by her loss, Peart told Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson to “consider him retired” at her funeral. Ten months later, his wife Jacqueline would succumb to terminal cancer, and Neil would begin an epic motorcycle trip across North America to deal with his grief.

As a result, production on the live album “Different Stages” was done without his input, and was mostly compiled by Geddy Lee and producer Paul Northfield. The “Test For Echo” tour had been Rush’s first attempt at putting on what they called “An Evening With Rush”, which featured the band playing two full sets without an opening act. With the extra freedom this offered them in terms of the set list, the band made it a point to include songs throughout their entire career (a scant two tracks from the then-recent “Test For Echo” are featured on the record, though more were featured on the tour itself).

This may seem odd, since for their first three live records the band made it a point to always veer towards new songs rather than old so they didn’t cheat their fans and make them buy the same songs over and over again. I think going in though, the band members were approaching this very differently than before. With Neil so devastated by his loss, there was a question of whether he would ever play drums again, nevermind play with Rush again. Geddy and Alex perhaps understood this may possibly be Rush’s last release, so they wanted to give their fans something special, something that covered their whole career and showed them at their best. What’s more, they included a then-unused recording from the “Farewell To Kings” tour as a special bonus on the third disc.

This casts an odd shadow over “Different Stages”, and it makes it a bit hard to review. How do I approach this? This album thankfully didn’t end up being Rush’s swan song, but there’s no doubt in my mind it was fully intended that way at the time. So does it fulfill that purpose? Does it provide the appropriate cap on Rush’s career up until then?

It might just be best for me to judge the album by its own merits. And in that respect, it has a ton! Rather than tweak everything within an inch of its life like on “Exit…Stage Left” (and “A Show of Hands” to a lesser extent), Rush basically turns on the tape recorder and presents the show as is. The majority of the album comes from a show at the World Amphitheater in Tinley Park, Illinois (my neck of the woods!), but random tracks are included from the “Counterparts” tour three years earlier to add more diversity. The crowd isn’t left out on this one and their excitement makes the tracks more fun. Alex’s guitar is less processed, adding more “oomph” to songs, and features some of his best playing. It’s fun to hear the crowd freak out when they hear classics like “Limelight”, or recently revived gems like “Natural Science”. “Different Stages” is also unique in that it’s the only live Rush album (before or since) to include “2112” is its entirety. That alone would make this worthy for purchase for hardcore fans.

The third disc, featuring the show at the Hammersmith Odeon on the “Farewell To Kings” tour in 1978, is also a nice addition, showing off a time in the band’s history that doesn’t get a lot of attention. “Farewell To Kings”, and later “Hemispheres”, shows the band perfecting their prog rock epics before moving onto their seminal period with “Permanent Waves” and “Moving Pictures”. At the same time, they hadn’t completely left behind their early days presented on their first four records, so it’s interesting to hear a masterpiece like “Cygnus X-1” next to my dreaded “In The Mood”.

If I had to criticize “Different Stages”, it might be certain parts of the third disc. I understand and appreciate Rush wanting to give their fans something extra on what might be their last live album, or their last album period. And hearing “Xanadu” or “A Farewell To Kings” is a thrill. But the first four records were easily the band’s weakest era, and I’d prefer they don’t close the book on their career with their weaker material. I’d prefer to remember Rush playing “Spirit of Radio” and “Tom Sawyer” (like how they end Disc Two), rather than “In The Mood” or “Cinderella Man” (like how they end Disc Three).

These are sequencing gripes though, and you can avoid this by taking Disc Three separately from the first two. Does “Different Stages” function as an appropriate swan song for Rush’s career? In terms of content and performance? Yes, it’s satisfying. But ultimately, I’m glad it didn’t end up being the band’s swan song. When you hear the passion they play with on recent live records and how the audience responds (especially on “Rush In Rio”), you realize it’s only gotten better since then, and while I like “Different Stages”, I’m happy things didn’t end with it.

MY RATING? Highly recommended.

Next week is going to be a bit different before I move onto all of Rush’s output past “Vapor Trails”. I’m going to take a short break (had so much happen lately I’m going cross-eyed), and when I return I’m going to cover the works that the individual members of Rush put out by themselves around the time the band went on hiatus. This will include Alex’s side project “Victor”, Geddy’s solo album “My Favorite Headache”, and Neil’s book “Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road”, which he wrote about his motorcycle trip. I feel the first two aren’t high-lighted very much (even by hardcore Rush fans), and the last would serve as an effective bridge between “Test For Echo” and “Vapor Trails”.

Thanks very much for your feedback and support so far for these reviews, and I’ll see you in a week!