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All the World's a Stage was a very raw, true rock and roll record, while Exit Stage Left was dead and heavily overdubbed. With A Show of Hands, a balance is struck. It retains the raw energy a true live album should always contain, but fixes just enough to enhance the experience.
What makes A Show of Hands worth attention, is that instead of playing it safe and releasing Permanent Waves through Signals live, the band shows some balls and composes the album almost entirely of material from the Grace Under Pressure through Hold Your Fire era. Some fans would say that Rush became more commercial, but in actuality the band was just experimenting with staying in the same time signature and writing shorter, but equally as powerful compositions as their earlier material. A Show of Hands faithfully represents these underrated pieces and adds energy that was lost through the poppy overproduction of the studio counterparts. Standout songs like "Mission", "Distant Early Warning", "Marathon", and "Manhattan Project" were seldom played live after this tour and unless you find a good bootleg, this is the only way that you will be able to listen to them in concert.
Being produced in the 80's, the album suffers from a lack of bass. Geddy Lee's legendary playing is prominent in the mix, but even his bass guitar sounds very high-end and polished. Alex Lifeson is almost completely buried in keyboards, rarely showcasing his talent on the album. This is only a minor complaint, considering that most mid to late 80's Rush recordings were driven by keyboards anyway. Neil Peart does what he does best at tearing the hell out of his drum-kit with the first standalone drum solo on a Rush recording. The band is as tight as ever and Geddy Lee gets the job done on vocals, but they are notably subdued compared to early Rush offerings. The album ends with an amazing rendition of "Closer to the Heart" which slowly builds until it explodes with energy, putting the band's instrumental talent on display for all to hear.
Fans of Rush's epic, hard rocking stage should look to All The World's a Stage for the classic pieces they want to hear. But diehard Rush fans who have been seldom exposed to this era of Rush should look to this album as an introduction to what they have missed out on. This album is the definition of an era, and it does an damn good job of defining it.
As had become traditional for Rush by this point, after four studio albums they brought out this live piece to summarise this particular era of their career ranging from Signals to Hold Your Fire. Of course, the problematic aspect here is that half the albums in that range are rather lacklustre efforts on their part, but I still had reason to hold out hope - after all, if the live versions of the tracks showed a bit more flair and style then perhaps the album could be a better way to experience that material.
Alas, in common with too many other live albums from the era A Show of Hands is simply an exercise in wheeling out performances indistinguishable from the studio renditions of the songs in question bar from the ever-present roar of the crowd (which, to be honest, is mixed far too high for my liking). As other reviewers have pointed out, a lot of this is due to the constraints of the synth-heavy period of their sound - with only three musicians onstage, the synth parts had to be largely preprogammed, more or less killing any scope they had to introduce any variation into the songs.
Still, though I understand why the album sounds this lifeless, that still doesn't excuse said lifelessness; as it is, whilst the musical direction the band took in this period sometimes yielded incredible results in the studio (as on my favourite of their synth-heavy albums, Grace Under Pressure), it clearly horribly compromised their live show. Perhaps hiring a guest musician or two to provide backup on the synths might have made for a more organic experience, but then again the trio's chemistry has always been so tight that incorporating more musicians into it would be a dangerous proposition indeed.
Alternately, if the album had included more 80s performances of less synth-dominated parts of their back catalogue it might have gone better - it closes with a reasonable rendition of Closer to the Heart, and the difference between that track the program-locked material before it is striking. But then again, All the World's a Stage and Exit Stage Left had already covered all the best songs from prior eras, and there seems to have been an effort made to avoid duplicating songs presented on those two.
In short, by this stage of their career Rush had written themselves into a corner with their live albums, in that everyone was expecting this release to focus on the tracks from Signals to Grace but the fact was that the songs in question just didn't lend themselves well to live performances. If you already own the studio albums these tracks came from, then you already have more interesting and lively renditions than the tracks in question than the rote runthroughs on offer here.
After four respectable studio albums throughout the 1980's - comprising Signals though to Hold Your Fire - it was once again time for Rush to release a live record. After all, they did have a penchant for releasing one live album for every four studio recordings. Meticulous band, I know. Anyways, "A Show of Hands" was their third offering outside of the studio and would turn out to be another impressive addition to the series of live releases the band had been issuing since 1976.
Ironically enough Rush chose the Three Stooges theme to open their shows on this tour. I say ironically because Lifeson, Peart and Lee are anything but stooges. Their ability to release quality album after quality album had been well documented by this point. A Show Of Hands would turn out to be no different. Every song on this album is played well and there are few points when the release really drags on. Subdivisions & Distant Early Warning are the obvious standouts having been the best tracks on their respective studio albums. Live they are just as inspiring. Marathon and Mission are two other highlights. The latter from Hold Your Fire sounds much more sincere and emotionally driven in a live setting moreso than in the studio, while the same can be said for the former. Mystic Rhythms is another track that comes across sounding like a million bucks on this album despite it's subdued nature. The song's heavy atmosphere carries over well from the studio to the stage, also. Witch Hunt is a pleasant inclusion on this release and is another song that lives up to its past studio brilliance. It is a great song that benefits from some over the top keyboards. And as expected, Closer to the Heart closes the album in fitting fashion.
There are some lackluster moments on this album, however. Turn the Page sounds quite goofy and Time Stand Still is simply average compared to the rest of the pact. However, the obligatory Neil Peart drum solo and Red Sector A more than make up for those minor complaints.
All in all, this was business as usual for Rush and the end result is another fine live recording. Though 'A Show of Hands' may not be the first thing to spring to mind when one considers Rush's extensive list of live releases it is nevertheless a fine representation of what the band had to offer while touring in the 80's.
Third time out for Rush on a live release, highlighting the albums proceeding the last live outing: Signals, Grace Under Pressure, Powered Windows, and Hold Your Fire. By highlighting, I mean that Rush has once again put out a live album that is full of new material (save one song) that has not been released live before. This is a wonderful trend that gives maximum value for your purchase. After all, if you want the older songs, you can already get them on the previous live releases by the band. The one remaining song, “Closer to the Heart” is understandable as an album closer due to its popularity plus the longer instrumental used to end the album on a great final note.
That’s the second thing that is nice; the one song they repeat is a different version. This makes having this version new and interesting. The excellent drum solo fills this role as well. Final thought is the intro. This live album provides one of the silly introduction pieces the band uses to kick off their concerts. In this case it is the 'Three Stooges theme’ (“Three Blind Mice” - cute). Just a fun extra to help capture the live experience and I whole heartedly agree with that. Live albums should be more than a glorified best of compilation with crowd noise.
Another big plus is the production. The sound is good without sounding like it was worked over. Production can kill any album, but especially the fragile balance needed to make a live recording work.
My only real complaint for an otherwise well thought out album is the actual songs selections. This era of Rush features the career shift to 80’s synth-pop, so naturally it is spread over this album. Although to the bands credit, they do pull off the massive production pieces well despite being a 3 piece outfit (assuming you ignore the fact the guys are heavily dependant on synthesizers and sequencers). But going into this live recording I knew I would have to deal with this era of Rush. The big problem for me is that they pulled the majority of the songs from the worse two albums!
Fun with statistics:
Drum solo: 1
Old Song: 1
Repeat Song: 1
Grace Under Pressure: 2
Powered Windows: 4
Hold Your Fire: 4
So the best two albums from this era get one fifth of the time while the poor ones get two-thirds! What a waste. But I will give one silver lining to the whole affair: The songs from the poorer albums do sound better here than their studio counterparts thanks to the guitar driven sound from being live. Still, overall there were better songs to pull from this era and the album suffers for it.
In total, this album is equipped with some poor song choices, but the good production and better sound of these songs live, all combined with the little extras and considerations do make it an overall good live album. But let’s face facts, Geddy Lee is one of the best bass guitarists in the industry and the artsy cover shows him playing keyboards – That should tell you something.