Union Live (Deluxe Package)
Gonzo Multimedia, 2011
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/08/2011
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Not that even Charles Dickens could come up with a saga as overcrowded and fraught with melodrama as that of the inimitable prog-rock juggernaut known as Yes... but if the quote fits, why not use it?
The year 1991 saw the erstwhile divided factions of Trevor Rabin (guitar/vocals), Chris Squire (bass/vocals), Tony Kaye (keys) and Alan White (drums) on the one hand, and Jon Anderson (vocals), Bill Bruford (drums), Rick Wakeman (keys) and Steve Howe (guitar) on the other, combine forces to throw together one of the worst studio albums of their (or, for that matter, any prog-rock outfit’s) career in the heavily doctored and thoroughly detestable Union… and follow it with a spectacular once-in-a-lifetime mega-tour featuring all eight Yesmen.
The last show of this unique musical voyage, at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California on August 8, 1991, was filmed and subsequently released on video in Japan, but quickly went out of print and became a sought-after rarity. Until now, as Gonzo Multimedia has re-released it in a Special Limited Edition Deluxe Package (holy repetitive redundancy, Batman!)—a two-DVD, two-CD extravaganza that includes the original concert on a single DVD, two CDs capturing the film’s audio, plus a bonus DVD with bootleg video of two other shows on the tour.
I was intrigued by this package mostly because I missed the tour in question and have always wondered what it was really like seeing the ’80s lineup share the stage with the guys from the “Classic Yes” of the ’70s. Interesting, is the answer, if uneven in a number of respects. One thing’s for sure; it breaks out nicely into sets of pros and cons.
“I’ve Seen All Good People” with eight guys on stage rocks big time and is an unquestionable highlight here. Ditto for the absolutely magnificent set-closing rendition of “Awaken” captured in this film. Anderson has said a number of times that whatever else you wanted to say about the Union album and tour, he got to play “Awaken” every night with all eight guys on stage. I get it now, Jon.
Rabin and Wakeman—said to be developing a new project with Anderson as I write these words—clearly got along famously on this tour. Wakeman adds dynamic solos to “Rhythm Of Love” and “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” (even deploying the infamous key-tar on the latter) that bring new dimension to both tunes. Later, Wakeman comes down from his riser during “Your Move” to clown on maracas while sharing Rabin’s mike, and moments after can be seen cracking up in the background when Rabin’s roadie muffs a guitar switch and leaves Trevor without a working amp connection right when he’s due to solo. Finally, Rabin guests on Wakeman’s solo spot, adding a speedy, classically flavored solo to Wakey’s standard “Excerpts from Six Wives of Henry VIII” that works remarkably well.
The other three big ensemble numbers—opener “Yours Is No Disgrace,” “Heart Of The Sunrise” and the closing “Roundabout”—also fare well for the most part, as you might expect; they’re sprawling, energetic tunes that lend themselves well to the expansive, almost orchestral treatments they receive here. This is what the audience came for, and the boys don’t disappoint—up to a point.
As just noted, people came to these shows to see eight guys play Yes music, not eight guys each take a solo spot. You’d think for this tour they would have had the good sense to stick to ensemble pieces and play around with the arrangements to give each guy a rest during the set. But no, the demands of ego require us to sit through one solo or duo piece after another… and, they’re mostly the same solo pieces each guy has been playing for decades. Zzzzz.
Rabin’s “contributions” to “Yours Is No Disgrace” and “Heart Of The Sunrise” serve only as reminders of why he should never, ever attempt to play Classic Yes songs. He’s clearly a very skilled technical player, and a decent pop songwriter… it’s just that every time the song calls for a guitar solo, the man turns into a hopeless wanker.
It’s clear from the film that Kaye and Bruford—two of the group’s original five members—were in fact onstage and manning their instruments during these shows. That said, you’d be hard-pressed to detect contributions of any significance from either, unless you count Brufy doubling White’s cymbals and Kaye’s occasional stray Hammond runs. (And really, Bill? Electronic drums? Might as well have played trash can lids.)
About the bonus disc: it’s quite worthwhile. On the main film and CDs, the camera work, editing and mixing are all solid—nothing special, nothing terrible. The less polished “bootleg” footage, while not up to professional video or audio standards, is surprisingly watchable, and features complete concerts from Denver and Pensacola. As a consequence, it includes several numbers that seem to have been edited from the main film for some reason, including most notably the resplendent “And You And I,” as well as a drum duet between Bruford and White that succeeds in being merely exotic as opposed to utterly ridiculous. The bootleg footage also features the “in the round” staging that seems to have suited this lineup so well, which the main film unfortunately doesn’t, capturing the group in a standard amphitheatre setting.
While it seems doubtful that the quality of the music would have suffered if Rabin, Kaye and Bruford had been absent, their presence is in the final estimation what made the tour (and this set) so special. The sheer density of sound achieved on some of the ensemble tunes lends them a majesty and sense of unstoppable momentum that’s unique and quite enjoyable. And again, Anderson was right; whatever its flaws, this tour is worth preserving just for the chance to see and hear a truly transcendent rendition of “Awaken.”