RUSH – EXIT… STAGE LEFT: Live Recording, The Prog Perfectionist Way

With All The World’s A Stage, Rush established a pattern of making every fifth album in their Mercury Records run a live album. This pattern was continued in 1981 by the release of Exit… Stage Left, a second double-live outing that focuses primarily on the way their sound had developed between A Farewell To Kings and Moving Pictures. The group became studio perfectionists during that time and for better or worse – depending on one’s point of view – that side of the band rubbed off on their treatment of the live recordings for this album.

The first disc mixes then-modern material with a few surprise detours into the back catalog. Side one kicks off with the one-two punch of “The Spirit Of Radio” and “Red Barchetta”: the former is a perfect opener, with a harmonious marriage between scorching riffs and a soaring lead vocal from Geddy Lee that both sound as impressive live as they do on record, and the latter’s complexity and textures impressing thanks to the heightened intensity of the live stage. “YYZ” closes the first side: its thrills are heightened by the concert setting and a Neil Peart drum solo that makes good use of tuned percussion. Side two mixes old and new. The old is represented by “A Passage To Bangkok,” where the searing riffery is accented by all manner of new Peart percussive flourishes, and “Beneath Between And Behind,” whose mix of fire and snappiness is intensified by a concert setting. The new is represented by “Closer To The Heart,” in which the audience gleefully sings along, and “Jacob’s Ladder,” which boasts a new intro and a bit more rock firepower that balances its regimented prog structure.

The second disc mixes the accessible and epic elements of the Rush approach to prog. Side three starts with a rousing run-thru of “The Trees,” preceded by a classical-style acoustic intro dubbed “Broon’s Bane” in tribute to longtime producer Terry Brown. The folkish prog of that tune segues beautifully into a stellar rendition of “Xanadu”: the result shows off the band’s ability to transfer such instrumentally demanding material to the live stage. Alternately spacey and intense, many fans consider it the definitive version of the song. Side three starts like side one with another one-two of accessible, streamlined prog-rockers via “Free Will” and “Tom Sawyer”: the former’s instrumental break really smokes when performed live and the latter shows off the song’s underrated sense of groove (Peart is totally on top of its constant percussive shifts). The grand finale is a jaw-dropping performance of “La Villa Strangiato”: it’s a glorious fusion of prog as twisty as a Gordian knot with the focused firepower of confident arena rockers.

Exit… Stage Left became an instant fan favorite upon release. It is sometimes criticized for being excessively slick from the mix down to the fade-outs and fade-ins between songs but it’s hard to argue with both the quality of material and performances here. Like a lot of classic live albums, it’s a selection of the best material from a key era that gets a new level of visceral excitement via the concert stage. The perfectionist quirks in the production merely reflect the nature of the band. Exit… Stage Left fully delivers on every nuance of that description and perhaps the most consistently listenable of Rush’s Mercury-era live albums from start to finish.

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