Album Review: Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe – Live at the NEC

There’s an old joke – admittedly not a rip-roaringly hilarious one – about band names sounding like law firms: Crosby, Stills, Nash and (sometimes) Young was the first to be the butt of comments about too many egos for one band (or band name). The tortuously convoluted history of Yes resulted in a late 80s aggregation with an even more unwieldy moniker: Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe. “It’s a mouthful…and how,” went one of the jokes. (Tip your server and try the veal.)

Because estranged bassist Chris Squire somehow ended up with the keys to the logo and brand, four members of arguably the most-revered lineup of Yes enlisted the talents of Tony Levin, bassist extraordinaire of King Crimson and veteran of more than 500 sessions. They didn’t give him top billing, but he didn’t seem to mind: “I don’t care about the billing at all,” he told me in September 2011. “My mind was occupied on that tour by trying to fill the shoes of Chris Squire, without sounding like a guy who’s just copying Chris Squire.” An additional keyboardist (Julian Colbeck) and guitarist (Milton McDonald) were added to the lineup for the inevitable world tour.

While the studio album that ABWH released was a welcome return to the classic Yes sound (the “official” band busying itself sounding like 80s bands) and features predictably pyrotechnic playing, it was a bit short on memorable tunes. An official tour document album finally came out in 1993, by which time Yes had resolved their differences (for awhile, at least) and recorded the all-in Union, a relatively weak affair. The ABWH live album was titled after the tour: An Evening of Yes Music Plus. It was…okay. Not as dreadful as 90125: The Solos, it still included long stretches of solo spotlights, and ended up short on energy. You had to be there.

Oddly enough, some nineteen years later, the involved parties have seen fit to release another live album from the same tour. Featuring almost exactly the same set list (albeit in a slightly different sequence), Live at the NEC Oct. 24th 1989 is – if you’re keeping score – the thrd album (and fourth through sixth discs) of the recorded output of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe.

I’ll set aside that redundancy, because unless you’re an ABWH completist (do such exist?) you don’t need An Evening of Yes Music Plus and this new release. Viewed strictly on its own merits, Live at the NEC does have its charms. The opening number, a medley of very old and then-very-new (“Time and a Word,” “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and ABWH’s “Teakbois”) is pretty effective, though the Art of Noise orchestra hits sound a bit out of place on this more acoustically-oriented arrangement. The solo spots that make up a good chunk of the first disc will be familiar to anyone who owns the 1973 triple-LP Yessongs: Steve Howe‘s acoustic “Clap,” some selections from Rick Wakeman‘s The Six Wives of King Henry VIII and so on. Moving back to classic Yes songs, the disc wraps up with a trio of early 70s classic numbers, among their best-known work.

The arrangements are fine, workmanlike, occasionally impressive. What they are not, however, is any sort of artistic competitor to the Yessongs versions from 30 years earlier. Wakeman’s keyboard textures in particular scream late-80s, which is a shame for such an accomplished player. Bill Bruford – one of the most fascinating and boundary-pushing percussionists in music – is playing an electronic set. It was cutting-edge at the time, but the sounds haven’t worn well. And while Levin remains one of the best and most innovative bassists in the business, somehow he doesn’t sound particularly effective here. The throaty Rickenbacker tones of Chris Squire are conspicuous in their absence.

So, too, are Squire’s vocals. There are vocal harmonies on Live at the NEC, but it’s not clear where they’re coming from. Jon Anderson is (to put it mildly) a distinctive vocalist, but the Yes sound requires more than he alone can give.

The second disc offers up more solo spots, a bit more ABWH material, and more early 70s Yes. Again the energy seems a bit lacking, and it’s not the fault of the playing per se; it’s more the arrangements: the parts the band has given itself to play.

A third disc includes a short amateur-quality behind-the-scenes video, worth a viewing for fans. The whole affair is somewhat confusingly packaged in a DVD-style case, making it appear that buyers are in fact getting a video document of the ABWH tour. That might have been more exciting. The booklet is impressive but confusing in its own way: it’s a reduced-size full color facsimile of the 1989 tour program (complete with ads and endorsements) but there’s no note explaining to purchasers that that’s what it is.

Note that portions of this concert (58 minutes’ worth) were broadcast on a BBC radio program called In Concert not long after the actual show took place. Final verdict: worth a listen for Yes fans, but only those who don’t already own An Evening of Yes Music Plus or any number of bootleg recordings from the tour.