Among the seminal progressive rock groups of the late '60s and early '70s, Yes has undergone its share of personnel changes. The group started out with Chris Squire (bass), Peter Banks (guitar), Jon Anderson (vocals), Bill Bruford (drums), and Tony Kaye (keyboards), and released two albums, the eponymous Yes, and Time and A Word. Banks either left or was fired (it depends on who you believe), and was replaced with Steve Howe. [N.B. Peter Banks passed away in March 2013.] This new line-up produced just one album, The Yes Album. Kaye left due to band friction, and was replaced by Rick Wakeman. This line-up produced two albums, Fragile and Close to the Edge -- the latter being the band's tour-de-force, and one of the most revered progressive rock albums of all time (see my CC article, The Absolutely Essential Progressive Rock Albums), as well as one of the first albums on which the entire first side of a vinyl disc was comprised of a single track. Bruford left to join King Crimson, and was replaced by Alan White. This line-up produced just one album, Tales from Topographic Oceans, a massive two-disc set that was not only written largely with live performance in mind, but caused enormous friction both in the band and among its fans. Wakeman left to pursue a solo career, and was replaced by Patrick Moraz. This line-up also produced just one album, Relayer. Moraz was let go, and Wakeman returned for two albums, Going for the One and Tormato. Further line-up changes (and many albums) ensued, but the most relevant one here is the departure of Jon Anderson in 2008. After using vocalist Benoit David (who was fronting a Yes tribute band) for a short time, the band brought on Jon Davison, front man for Glass Hammer, a Yes-inspired progressive rock group.
And so we have our current line-up: Squire (now the only original member of Yes), Howe, White, Davison, and keyboardist Geoff Downes (who has been in and out of the group for both recording and touring since 1980).
Yes is on tour, playing three of its most-loved albums -- The Yes Album, Close to the Edge, and Going for the One -- in their entirety. They performed at The Beacon Theater in New York City on April 9th, and I was able to purchase quite literally the last available ticket: an obstructed view seat behind the sound and light boards. Setting aside my love of Yes and their music, why would I pay full price for an obstructed view? Simple. Because although my view was obstructed (thankfully, not very much), the seats around the sound board afford the best sound in the theater, for obvious reasons. So I actually lucked out.
After a shaky "Solid Time of Change" (the opening section of the "Close to the Edge" suite) -- apparently due to a combination of technical issues and stage confusion -- the band found its footing in the second section ("Total Mass Retain"), and hummed along nicely through "I Get Up I Get Down" and "Seasons of Man" (the final two sections). Now meshing beautifully, the band absolutely nailed "And You and I," another four-part suite, after which they received their first, well-deserved, extended standing ovation. A well-played "Siberian Khatru" followed, ending Close to the Edge. Mr. Squire then welcomed everyone, noting that this tour was the first time in history that the album had been played in its entirety, in proper order. (The Close to the Edge tour apparently opened with "And You and I."
The opening of "Yours Is No Disgrace" was also a bit shaky (this would be a theme for the evening: shaky opening numbers), but the band caught themselves quickly and were solid by the end. After the rest of the band left the stage, Mr. Howe played "The Clap," a complicated solo piece for acoustic guitar, and a favorite of Yes fans. At one point, he openly smiled at the audience. (One fan told me during intermission that this was "significant," that Mr. Howe rarely smiles.) The band returned for a rousing rendition of "Starship Trooper," one of Yes' songs that has had regular airplay on classic rock stations, and for which they received their second, again well-deserved, extended standing ovation -- particularly after absolutely milking the final jam, during which Mr. Squire was clearly enjoying himself, moving around the stage and hamming it up.
"I've Seen All Good People" (another song that has had regular classic rock station airplay) was next, followed by "A Venture" (a short-ish, simpler piece), and "Perpetual Change," another fan favorite that ended a tiny bit shakily, but was otherwise so well-played that the audience didn’t seem to care.
During the 20-minute intermission, I was able to talk to some of the Yes "regulars," including someone who was introduced to me as "the biggest Yes fan in the world." (Among other things, he had apparently once mortgaged his home to buy a dozen tickets for a concert in England.) He informed me that the reason the albums were not being performed in chronological order was that Mr. Squire (who has a famously outsized ego) "beat everyone into submission" on the issue -- and allegedly did so continuously, since Mr. Howe apparently argued for strict chronology prior to each performance. I also learned that Mr. Davison's presence was what was keeping tensions between Messrs. Squire, Howe, and White from adversely affecting the band: "They all 'put their love' on Jon, so they don' have to deal with each other."
"Going for the One" opened the second set (again, opening shakily, but solid by the end). This was followed by an absolutely gorgeous rendition of "Turn Of The Century," a (mostly) soft, balladic song that moves from lovely to positively majestic in just eight minutes. The band received its third standing ovation for this. Following this was "Parallels," one of this reviewer's favorite Yes songs, which opens with a loud, spine-tingling chord progression on church organ. [N.B. If one squinted, Mr. Downes could have been mistaken for Mr. Wakeman: slightly paunchy, with shoulder-length blonde hair, and dressed all in white; all that was missing was the ankle-length cape.] To this is added an equally spine-tingling bass figure, and the song then builds continual momentum toward a wonderful keyboard solo, and a near-impossible ending figure. A fourth ovation ensued. "Wonderous Stories" -- a beautiful song with a child-like innocence about it -- followed.
The concert ended with “Awaken,” almost certainly Yes' last foray into long-form songwriting, a 17-minute extravaganza that features multiple sections, complicated harmonies, and some of Mr. Anderson's most fantastical lyrics. The band more than did it justice, seeming to know that they had to nail this final part of the performance. And it was indeed a tour-de-force, with everything coming together perfectly: a fabulous coda to a wonderful evening. Although the band returned for one encore (the ubiquitous and overplayed "Roundabout"), it was apparent -- from both the looks on people's faces and the conversations I overheard while leaving -- that the "glow" of "Awaken" would be with all of us for some time. (I'm still humming it.)
A few final comments are in order.
Not having been in the Yes universe since seeing them with Mr. Anderson, I was unaware when I purchased my ticket that he would not be singing. Indeed, when I found that out, I almost sold my ticket to someone else. And although it was a tad unnerving to hear Jon Anderson's voice (including his exact timbre) coming from someone else's mouth, not only was Mr. Davison excellent, but (sorry, Mr. Anderson) he was clearly and confidently hitting notes that Mr. Anderson had started to have trouble with almost a decade ago. Mr. Davison did have one minor annoying tic: he seemed not to know what to do with his right hand, so he used it in a sort of "triumphant" gesture of "reaching for the sky." This is fine if it is used sparingly, as it can be very effective in underscoring majesty. But used too often (as he did), it loses its power. In the unlikely event Mr. Davison sees this review, I offer the following suggestion (as one who fronted a Genesis/Yes cover band in the late '70s): other uses for your right hand would be holding the mic with both hands, hugging yourself around the waist (another effective gesture when used appropriately), or simply (and subtly) beating out time. You use the "triumphant" gesture well; you simply use it too much.
As for the concert sound, it was generally okay. However, it was almost too "crisp" most of the time. Yes' live sound has always been a bit muddy (I saw them live about half a dozen times throughout the years), though never enough to detract or to cause one not to hear a particular player. Rather, that muddiness was (mostly) the result of the effect of Mr. Wakeman's keyboards -- whether subtle (e.g., in "Turn of the Century") or thundering (e.g., in "Parallels"), which helped create the atmospheres that added an important (even critical) element to their live sound. In this regard, Mr. Downes's keyboards were almost always too far down in the mix. (According to "the biggest Yes fan in the world," this was the result of Mr. Squire and Mr. Howe wanting to do any grandstanding that was going to be done.) Indeed, it is not coincidence that the handful of times during the concert when the sound was full -- when the type of atmospheres for which Yes' music is known were present -- was when Mr. Downes's parts were either in the forefront or allowed to shine more.
All that said, the band played well, their harmonies (some of which are quite complex) were superb and, once they worked out the initial kinks, they all seemed to be having a good time. (Except, maybe, Mr. White, the only one who sometimes seemed to be "going through the motions.") I was also oddly pleased that the light show was minimal: just well-handled and appropriate lights, plus a screen above and behind the band that showed quasi-psychedelic patterns. This actually forced one to focus on the music -- a good call on the part of the group.
Needless to say, I'm glad I did not re-sell my ticket. Although the band is not nearly what it was at its height, they are still very much worth seeing and hearing, and are performing a truly critical function: keeping the legacy of progressive rock alive, and continuing to inspire others to do the same. If you live in a city that is on the band’s remaining itinerary, I urge you to see them, because this may well be your last chance to hear these three extraordinary albums performed in their entirety, and indeed to hear a version of Yes that can (at least occasionally) still create the magic and majesty of its heyday. - Ian Alterman
Ian Alterman is a founding moderator of Progarchives.com, the number one progressive rock website in the world. He writes there under the name Maani. (Don't ask.)