The Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe tour has always been blighted by its one official live recording missing Tony Levin, who was taken ill and temporarily replaced by Jeff Berlin. While not included in the band name, Levin was then, as now, more than a faceless sessioner and had an established rhythm section partnership with Bill Bruford. So a show with Levin is the key selling point of Live at the NEC, the latest Gonzo release from this period following their ABWH re-release and Union Live.
Gonzo, successor to Voiceprint, have been much criticised in the past, but Union Live was generally well received. The ABWH re-release was notable for its bonus tracks, although it was an embarrassment to discover neither Steve Howe nor Levin were even told of the release. (Howe was saddened as he's sitting on a pile of unreleased recordings that would have made for better bonus content.) Sadly, Gonzo's poor reputation strikes again here with the wrong track order for disc 2, but more on that later.
In short, this is a good recording of a great show and a welcome addition to An Evening of Yes Music Plus. There are seven musicians on stage (ABWH + Levin, with Julian Colbeck on keys and Milton McDonald on guitar), only one of whom is in the current Yes (Howe), yet this feels, legal quibbles over the name notwithstanding, like Yes and serves as a reminder of another path the band once took.
Let's begin with the beginning and the much-discussed, inventive but low-key start to the show, where Anderson, Howe and Wakeman all took solo spots. Sadly the audio on Live at the NEC misses the full Benjamin Britten lead-in and there a few annoying audio glitches early on, particularly in Anderson's solo. Anderson's medley is inventive (compared to predictable solos from Howe and Wakeman), although the cheesy keyboard sounds from second keyboardist Colbeck are unfortunate.
If Howe's choice of pieces is safe, I'll praise the strong performance of "Mood for a Day". Wakeman's solo is one of his better and there's a nice lead-in to the first full band piece, "Long Distance Runaround". And this is the first time that you really notice the difference to the Squire/White rhythm section with a heavy bass from Levin and Bruford's much-criticised electronic drums. More than most, I like Bruford's electronic kit and what he did with it in early Earthworks, but here, the result is more questionable. His solo after "Long Distance Runaround" feels more like a tech demo than good music. It feels as if the electronic kit is more often limiting Bruford's playing rather than than allowing him to explore new territory.
Apart from "Teakbois" appearing in Anderson's medley, the first (then) new piece is "Birthright". It is sadly marred by a poor mix, with the keys too low and the drums too loud. We're then into "And You and I" and, as we're early in the tour, this is still one of the first few times Bruford has ever played this song as he left before the tour supporting Close to the Edge. This is a good version; Bruford's drums work for me here and Levin is distinctive. McDonald and Colbeck bring some great backing vocals to the mix.
It is interesting to compare how ABWH put together the set and how they approach different songs with what Yes today do, or Yes in the early 2000s did. Geoff Downes was criticised by many online when he explained Yes sometimes opt for slower tempos to give some songs more power, but here ABWH seem to take the same approach. Anyone who complains about the modern band's tempos should try this version of "And You and I": ABWH chose what feels like a fairly slow tempo, but it complements the piece. They speed up for a rocking edition of "I've Seen All Good People", with Howe notably strong and a great solo from Wakeman. And then straight into an aggressive "Close to the Edge". An almost industrial rhythm section play against Howe's fiery playing in the opening section. The clang and clatter of Bruford's electronic drums might not be to everyone's tastes, but I think they (mostly) work here, bringing a different edge to the piece. Anderson is in great voice, as he is throughout the show. A grandiose and triumphant climax is met with lengthy applause.
"Themes" is a reminder of the strengths of the ABWH album. The set could have been included more material from the album, but it's clear this was all about Yes music and re-uniting (4/5 of) the Fragile/Close to the Edge band.
Levin's playing is less to the fore than Squire would be, but he is spotlighted in a duet with Bruford, obviously missing from An Evening of Yes Music Plus. Their duet varied from night to night, and unfortunately this night's wasn't their best. There are some nice ideas initiated by Levin, but it feels as if they never quite find their feet and the piece doesn't develop. Bruford's machine gun rattle from his electronic kit is over-used.
"Brother of Mine" is another testament to the album, with good back-up guitar from McDonald. "The Meeting" has a nicer introduction than on the album and a strong performance, unfortunately with a little bit of audio hiss.
Anderson then announces to the audience that, "It's request time" and then waits for someone to shout out "Heart of the Sunrise". Was it as obvious a ruse at the time as it is in retrospect? Anyway, Levin's funkier take on the bass line is odd, and there's that machine gun clatter from Bruford again! But, overall, it's another great performance: a more pacific reading of the piece than some performances by other Yes incarnations.
"Roundabout" is another strong performance, notably from Anderson. "Starship Trooper" is taken at a measured pace. Anderson interpolates a bit of "Soon" at the end of "Disillusion", then chats with the crowd, does thank yous. It makes for a laidback version of the song, but by beginning "Wurm" at a slow tempo, it allows them to steadily speed up to a high-energy climax to the evening.
So, anyway, better late than never: here's "Order of the Universe". It's actually one of my favourites on the album, but I think here it is weaker than the other tracks. While Anderson sings well for most of the show, he lacks fluidity here. We also get more overly clattering drums from Bruford, and another poor drum solo.
Currently available is this deluxe, 3-disc edition of the release. The packaging comes with a replica of the tour programme. And there's a DVD with a 26 minute, black and white film by Colbeck, consisting of fairly raw footage shot on 25 Oct 1989 backstage, of the soundcheck and short portions of the show (shot from the side of the stage). The film is interesting to see once, but I can't imagine watching it a second time! I presume a standard release with just the 2 audio CDs will follow at some point.
One can criticise how the set was ordered or Bruford's foray into electronic drums, but the release reflects those choices that ABWH made at the time. Live at the NEC is an honest document of ABWH live. Bottom line, while there are some glitches, some better and worse performances, this is a great set and worth getting.