Okay, so things haven’t quite been the same at Yes camp since the band resumed touring without legendary vocalist / cofounder Jon Anderson. And maybe their latest album (done with surrogate singer Jon Davison) Heaven & Earth isn’t quite up to the standards of Fragile and Close to The Edge.
But then again, what is?
Formed in 1968 by Anderson and bassist Chris Squire (the group’s sole constant member), Yes transformed quickly from avant-garde cover band to progressive rock giants in the early ‘70s, notching AM/FM hits with “I’ve Seen All Good People,” “Roundabout,” and “Long Distance Runaround.” Of course, true fans are cognizant that those radio-friendly gems merely scratch the surface when it comes to sampling the English band’s virtuosity and creative ambitions. By the mid-70’s Yes were releasing albums (and double-albums) with complete sides devoted to epic-length tracks like “Close to The Edge,” “The Gates of Delirium,” and “The Revealing Science of God.”
Naturally, radio shied away from such cuts. Too long, too mystical, too deep. But fans ate it up, turning Yes into sports arena regulars even as the decade gave way to disco and (later) punk. The band wouldn’t enjoy commercial (and video) success on par with “Roundabout” until 1983 or so, when an almost entirely different Yes lineup struck gold (platinum, even) with “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and “Leave It.”
Now Yes fans around the world can relive highlights from the group’s final tour with Anderson, long-cited as the band’s spiritual center: Eagle Rock has repackaged Yes—Songs from Tsongas: The 35th Anniversary Tour for Blu-ray and DVD.
Clocking at nearly two and a half hours, the Joe Thomas-directed concert film captures an Anderson-fronted Yes live at Paul E. Tsongas Arena in Lowell (Boston), Massachusetts in May 2004 near the end of its North American run of shows commemorating their thirty-five years of mind-blowing musical brilliance. Previously issued on DVD in the mid-2000s, the lively concert features the “classic” lineup of Anderson, Squire, Steve Howe (guitar), Rick Wakeman (keys), and Alan White (drums)—the configuration responsible for such masterpieces as Close to The Edge (1972) and Going for The One (1977).
As with Anderson, the tour marked Wakeman’s last outing with the lads; doctors would later advise the keyboard whiz to quit his marathon globe-trotting. Anderson wasn’t interested in recording a new Yes album after the commercial failure of 2001’s Magnification and—following a bout of acute respiratory illness—likewise wanted to slow down and rest up.
Squire and co. wouldn’t have it; they carried on with surrogate singers Benoit David (2008-11) and Davison (2012-present), recording two new albums with Howe’s Asia compatriot, Geoff Downes (“Video Killed the Radio Star”), on keys (Downes first appeared with Yes on 1980’s underrated Drama).
Anderson is currently finishing a project with fusion fiddler Jean-Luc Ponty.
But Tsongas finds the five-piece in healthier, happier days. Shot by at least eight roving cameras before an 8,000-strong audience, the concert movie sees Yes shelling out obvious tracks like “Long Distance Runaround,” “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” and “Roundabout” alongside adventurous throwbacks “Yours Is No Disgrace,” “Sweet Dreams” and Beatles cover “Every Little Thing.” The band also dips into its mid-90’s catalog, serving up Keys to Ascension tour de force “Mind Drive” in three parts—with Fragile favorite “South Side of the Sky” and Going For the One chestnut “Turn of the Century” sandwiched in between.
The stage is decorated with surreal anemone and sponge-like inflatables designed by artist Roger Dean, who illustrated some of the band’s most familiar album jackets. The lighting scheme is dominated by purples, pinks, and lavender hues, but the clarity is good and the camera angles multitudinous to keep things interesting. No ADD quick-cuts here; the tasteful editing means we can actually watch at least ten uninterrupted seconds of Howe working the necks of his Gibson ES-175 and Martin acoustic—or of Squire thumping his signature Rickenbacker or green Mouridian bass. The filmmakers even wrangle a few choice snippets of White behind his kit; ordinarily a drummer’s shells and hardware (and positioning further back) frustrates decent performance footage.
Clad comfortably in all-black, Wakeman tickles the various keyboards (Roland, Korg, GEM) surrounding him, but he sits at a piano front-and-center for a solo spotlight. Lovely ballad “The Meeting” segues neatly into a five-man acoustic medley boasting ‘70s and ‘80s offerings and latter-day Yes cuts: “Roundabout” becomes a loping, Chicago blues shuffle, while “Owner” is transformed into an unplugged, campfire-style sing-along. Magnification lullaby “Time is Time” sparkles. Uplifting Anderson hymn “Show Me” benefits from Squire’s gentle bass, Howe’s fleet-fingered guitar fills, and Wakeman’s deft piano punctuation.
Professorial-looking Howe delights with bluegrass-flavored guitar solo “Second Initial,” then interprets Big Generator single “Rhythm of Love” (written by ‘80s Yes guitarist Trevor Rabin) on a red Fender Strat. Anderson swaps his black blazer for a paint splattered sport coat later in the set as Howe conjures wailing notes from his Fender pedal steel (“And You And I”). Cosmic canto “Starship Trooper” (from 1970’s The Yes Album) proves the perfect encore.
We’re not sure why Tales From Topographic Oceans “The Ritual” isn’t included in the main feature, but the percussion-laden 1973 overture does appear as a DVD bonus feature (as does an eight-minute Roger Dean interview).
A second DVD showcases Yes’ stop later that same summer at the Estival Jazz in Lugano, Switzerland. Shot for broadcast on Swiss and Italian television by Giovanni Invernizzi and crew, the outdoor concert is a rain-soaked affair for the hundreds in attendance—but Anderson and the boys entertain with full-on electric versions of the “unplugged” Tsongas selections. Squire provides a teaser of his “On the Silent Wings of Freedom” bass line during his “Fish” solo piece (with Howe playing the tune’s hypnotic harmonics on guitar). Wakeman dons one of his old-school capes for the nighttime gig, and is seen smiling at his peers throughout the set (Squire also seems in especially good spirits). Umbrellas are spotted in the crowd early on, but disappear when the drizzle relents—only to appear again, en masse, when the skies open again later (during “And You And I” and “Starship Trooper”).
The Lugano set is abbreviated (no “Mind Drive” or “Yours Is No Disgrace” here)—but the lighting is better here than at Tsongas, and the cameraman come away with more close-ups of the musicians in action.
Songs From Tsongas: The 35th Anniversary Concert is also available as a 3-CD set. The Eagle Rock Blu-ray and DVD concerts are both presented in your choice of Dolby Digital Stereo, Dolby 5.1, or DTS Surround Sound, which makes the set a welcome addition to one’s home video library.
High vibration, go on! Here’s hoping this classic Yes line-up (and other select members, like Bill Bruford and Tony Kaye) receive their long-overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.