Rush – All The World’s a Stage (1976)

On the coattails of the wildly successful 2112, Rush decided to put out a quad-side, triple-gatefold live LP, named with a Shakespeare reference, recorded in their home town. This began a cycle where the band would release four studio albums, then bookend the era with a double live album. This time around, the band summarized their early career, an era that began as a bar band belting out Led Zeppelin-esque music, and progressing to a full-on art-rock band, complete with long-form concept pieces.

This album was recorded in historic Massey Hall in Toronto, a 2700-seat venue with a vivid past, serving as the location of classic acts from Charlie Parker to Frank Zappa. Terry Brown and crew captured their June 11-13 1976 shows on tape, from the tour supporting 2112, restructuring the order of their set into an hour-and-ninteen-minute series of two LPs’ worth of live tunes.

The older, hard rock side of Rush is solidly displayed here. They start by rocking out “Bastille Day” and then pounding through live versions of stuff like “Anthem” and “Something For Nothing”, plus medleys, like starting with “Fly By Night” and segueing into “In the Mood”. All of this shows Alex’s ability to plow through the rhythm and then switch to a screaming bluesy solo and back, without the aid of overdubs or a rhythm guitarist behind him. This is helped with Geddy’s bass, which is chunky and follows the guitar well.

If you’re looking for more in the prog vein, there is a truncated version of the first side of their latest album at the time, 2112, which removes the “Oracle” and shortens the “Discovery” sub-songs, clocking in at just over 15 minutes. (And a minor gripe is that this is tracked on the CD as a single song, so you can’t skip around easily, which sucks, because sometimes I’m in the mood to just jump to “Grand Finale” and rock that part out.) On the tail of that is a twelve-minute rendition of “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, which is pretty faithful to the album version.

A big reason I like this album more than the other Rush live albums is there’s a lot more of the human element shown here; it’s probably the most honest of the live albums. The band isn’t spot-on perfect here, which is good. You can see the holes where overdubs weren’t compensated with walls of Taurus synth and triggered MIDI and other sampled wizardry. They got around the limitations the old-fashioned way: by improvising, cutting corners, and making it sound good. Add to this that Massey Hall isn’t a huge place. I myself am by no means a talented musician, but in college, I played bass (for one gig) for a band that played in a sold-out hall twice the size of this one. For me to think of Rush playing in a theater half that size boggles my mind. And you can hear it; There isn’t constant audience noise. For some numbers, the crowd is quiet, and then waits for the end of the song to applause. This is much more appealing to me than a giant arena where people are cheering for every second because Rush is the biggest thing in the world, or a “live” album recorded in a studio with a constant crowd sound dubbed in from a stock audio reel. This small venue dynamic shows them as a working band, just starting, still struggling. And I like that.

The small things add up, too. A few times, Alex gets a touch of feedback in places where it didn’t sound planned. Neil fills in with his cowbell here and there, and sounds like he’s having fun on the set. When they go from the slow to the heavy part of “In the End”, Geddy counts off with “one, two, buckle my shoe”. There are a lot of little fills and runs at the ends of songs that shows that they’re still organic.

Probably my favorite bit is the medley of “Working Man” and “Finding My Way”, which completely rocks out both songs, and adds a trademark drum solo by “the professor on the drum kit”. I have to say, compared to later stuff, you can tell Neil is still building his chops here. This is a pre-electronic, pre-trigger, pre-MIDI drum solo, nothing but skins and a little bit of cowbell.

A minor nit: the old CD had to clip the quad-side album at 75 minutes, and that meant dropping “What You’re Doing”, and also dropping this bit of chatter between the band members as they ran offstage and then slammed a door behind them. This got fixed in the 1997 remaster/reissue.

Overall, this is a nice time capsule and a great way to end the early hard rock era of the band. From here, things got a lot more proggy and the band left behind the desire to be another Zep clone. But it’s still fun to go back to this every once in a while and see a recap of what the band did for those first four albums.

Rating: 8

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