Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Rush – A Show of Hands (1989)

The first concert I ever attended was Rush at the old Rosemont Horizon in Chicago, supporting the Hold Your Fire album. Imagine my amazement when I found that the exact tour I saw was released as a live album! They didn’t record the same show (thank god – the sound at that place was similar to recording a live album inside a large oil storage drum), but they did capture the spirit with the fifteen tracks recorded for this CD. I think if I would have reviewed this back in 1989 when it was released, I would have given it a ten. I think it’s interesting to come back to this two decades later and give it a second look.

This is probably the cleanest recorded Rush live album of the five (or six) officially offered by the band. It’s hard to even tell it’s a live album during most of the songs, because there’s absolutely no crowd noise, and the conditions are absolutely perfect. It’s also important to note that Rush almost never deviates from the recorded version of the song, except maybe an extra “ba-bum” at the end of a song. Combine the two, and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish if you’re listening to the live version or the studio version through a lot of the album. Rush fanatics absolutely love this, and think it’s the highest form of perfection and a demonstration how well the trio can play. I’d be more impressed if they could mix things up a bit more, maybe not as much as Frank Zappa did on his ever-changing, ever-mutating setlists, but maybe an extra or different solo here or there.

This album captures the era of Rush after Moving Pictures, but before the band slowed things down and became more irregular with their studio and touring schedule. They blew their wad on the classic, rockable stuff over their previous two live albums, and the only old tune that survives here is the closer, “Closer to the Heart.” Yes, they did play “YYZ” and “Tom Sawyer” on the tour, but this album is just a 75-minute collection of the best parts of the evening, not a historical bootleg-type capture of the whole show. So they really trimmed back the tracklist to only showcase the new stuff.

That means you’ve got a lot of the more dire, more synthified, less guitar-oriented numbers. We’re talking half of Power Windows, a lot of Signals, and a lot of Grace Under Pressure (although not the songs I’d want, and they do “Red Sector A” toward the end of the CD, which usually puts me to sleep.) The one advantage is that the live sound is much better than some of the studio sound on some of these numbers. For example, “The Big Money” (the opener, after a track of the Three Stooges theme music) has a much crisper and a slightly bassier sound to it, and I like it better than the cut on the original album. This is consistent across all of the tracks; without spending hundreds of hours spinning knobs in the studio for that polished sound, they introduce more of Geddy’s bass and a good live guitar sound that challenges the synth-heavy landscape.

There are only four tracks from the album this tour supported, which is also strange. It’s a good grouping from Hold Your Fire, though. They all sound pretty much identical to the album version, which doesn’t do much, but it’s always enjoyable to hear them again. “Mission” was a remarkable live track, because that’s the song where they dropped a million red balloons into the crowd, ala the three red spheres on the cover of the album. It was sensational to be on the first deck of this auditorium and see all of these red spheres float down into the crowd on the floor and then spread out like crimson paint. Unfortunately, you can’t hear this on the live album, but the song’s a nice reminder if you were there (or saw a video).

The highlight of this album is “The Rhythm Method,” Neil Peart’s drum solo. Unlike other albums, this is a standalone solo, not merged in the middle of another song. Peart does a bit of the old-school stuff, but halfway through the solo, his drum kit turns to reveal his electronic drums, and he plays between both sets, using the e-drums to trigger MIDI synth beats that sound like stuff from a big-band number. It’s a completely unique sound and approach, and even though it’s less than five minutes long, it packs a tremendous amount of drumming in a short space.

This isn’t a bad live album. At first, I thought I’d give it a lower rating, because I seldom listen to it, and it’s not a lot of things. It’s not long, and it doesn’t have a tremendous amount of stuff on it. It doesn’t have the old favorites. It doesn’t do anything dramatic or weird or neat (aside from Neil’s solo). It’s a very straightforward capture of one CD’s worth of a concert that was recorded well, end of story. But looking back, it’s such a great-sounding capture of the band at a very key time in their career that’s usually forgotten. I don’t think most people would buy this album to get started on Rush, because there are all kinds of collections and compilations of the old stuff, and I don’t think a fan looking for a good live album would pick this, when they could get one of the older classics, or get a much greater value out of the 3-CD Different Stages CD. But for some reason, I keep listening to this CD, and I think back to when I got it, and it’s just such a perfect little time machine to then, that I realize I do really like this.

Rating: 7