There’s a moment in Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi when Luke Skywalker looks with pity upon his infirm teacher.
Yoda won’t have it.
“When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not!” snaps the wispy-haired wizard—who then passes away.
The gentlemen in Yes resembled Templar Knights and tenured professors more than rock and roll heartthrobs when taking the Hard Rock stage in Northfield Park Wednesday night.
Pity them not.
Old? Perhaps, but the Yes men are still sprightly and virtuosic. And their music has aged like wine.
The progressive rock band was founded in England in the late ‘60s, after all, and sure, some members of the “original” and “classic” lineups look every one of their years. But given the loose, life-affirming set delivered by the group’s current incarnation before a near sellout crowd, it’s still a bit early to start dialing any assisted living facilities.
The ensemble—initially assembled by singer Jon Anderson and bassist Chris Squire—has seen countless roster changes over the decades, starting with the addition of guitarist Steve Howe (ex-Bodast, Tomorrow), who replaced Peter Banks (now deceased). And when drummer Bill Bruford left to join King Crimson, Alan White settled in behind the throne.
He’s been there ever since.
Yes enjoyed massive success in the Seventies, crafting one mind-bending album after another and packing in stadiums for concerts of quasi-mystical proportions in an era dominated by arena rock, glam, and disco.
The momentum appeared to shift (for the worse) when keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman jumped overboard in 1979. Swedish synth player had subbed for Wakeman on 1974’s excellent Relayer album, but the caped crusader returned for 1977’s magnum opus Going For the One. Following a strained Tormato tour and botched sessions for a follow-up album, both Wakeman and Anderson tendered their resignations.
Squire, White, and Howe carried on as Yes, recruiting singer Trevor Horn and keyboardist Geoff Downes, who—as The Buggles—topped the charts with “Video Killed The Radio Star.” This lineup recorded only one album together, 1980’s overlooked, cyber-punk Drama, before disintegrating.
Undeterred, Howe and Downes formed Asia (with John Wetton and Carl Palmer), producing the mega-hits “Heat of the Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell,” leaving the Squire / White rhythm section to weigh their options.
Salvation (and evolution) came in the person of South African guitarist, Trevor Rabin, who guided Yes through its most commercially successful period ever. The sleek, post-New Wave sound of 90125 threw old-school Yes fans for a loop but cast a much larger net when it came to nabbing wider audiences, some of who were oblivious to the band’s already storied past. Meshing Yes’ art-rock sensibilities with his own pop-rock accessibility, Rabin essentially reimagined the band for the rhythm-savvy ‘80s. With Anderson back in the fold (along with organist Tony Kaye), the revitalized Yes struck big with “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” “Leave It,” and “Changes.” This version would go on to issue 1988’s Big Generator and 1994’s Talk.
Between those albums, two Yes factions existed: “Yes West” with Squire, White, and Rabin, and “Yes East” featuring Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe, both camps vied for legal rights, concert dollars, and listener loyalty. The dust settled (somewhat) when the seemingly rival squadrons joined forces for an eight-man Union tour in 1991. After the release of Talk and 1996’s two-part Keys to Ascension, however, it was anybody’s guess what form the next Yes would take.
Today’s Yes consists of Squire (the sole constant), White, Howe, Downes…and new singer Jon Davison.
Davison—the voice of Glass Hammer and Sky Cries Mary—has a sweet, soaring tenor that recalls Anderson’s on all the old material. He’s no doppelganger, per se, but like the last “substitute” vocalist (Canadian Benoit David, 2008-2012), Davison evokes “Jon Prime” both in concert and on record.
That’s right: Yes’ new album, Heaven & Earth, dropped this very month, and the band played some of it at the Hard Rock.
But the 2014 tour is an albums-oriented affair whereon Yes is rendering two of its most beloved records in their entireties. Last year the band played The Yes Album, Close to The Edge, and Going For the One front-to-back. This year it’s 1972’s Close to The Edge (again) and 1971’s Fragile, with a couple new songs shoehorned between the album sets—and a pair of hits tacked on at the end.
But Close to The Edge was presented in reverse order on Wednesday. Not a big deal, considering the LP only has three songs on it. Yes bolted from the starting blocks with the winding, musically mischievous “Siberian Khatru,”—whose seesaw guitar riff and bounding bass made it a choice opener on several previous tours—then eased into the pretty, multi-part “And You And I” suite. A veritable King of All Strings, Howe juggled guitars as needed (electric and acoustic) on “Close to The Edge,” sometimes rolling his trusty Fender pedal steel into position for some wailing, droning notes. Meanwhile, Squire held court stage left, flooding the bottom end of the mix with deep grooves and upper-register rhythms from his trademark Rickenbacker bass. Davison acquitted himself marvelously on all three epics.
Downes manned a bank of seven or eight different keyboards, all programmed with different tones and textures, some with little computer screens mounted above them for reference (or… whatever). Surrounded by his machinery, Downes looked like a pilot in a science fiction film, depressing the keys and twisting the knobs with outstretched arms. White could be heard pounding out thunderous beats and subtle polyrhythms from behind his kit, but the drummer was hidden from view by a massive array of cymbals and assorted hardware.
Davison (a young whippersnapper compared to his mates) isn’t taking lightly his role as the band’s spiritual torchbearer. Tendering the transformative “Close to the Edge,” the slender vocalist faithfully replicated (whether consciously or not) all the aural and visual Anderson nuances of yore, often waving his arms to the music, transfixed—and idly whacking a tambourine, or running his fingers through wind chimes. Davison’s verses and gestures weren’t the only touchstones to the past: With his white pants, trippy psychedelic shirt, long hair and beard, the singer’s wardrobe (white pants, trippy psychedelic tee shirt) and grooming (long hair, beard) probably had some fans flashing back to the hippy “Olias of Sunhillow” Jon Anderson of 1976.
The billowy, Charmin-soft “Believe Again” may never take a place in the Yes pantheon alongside the group’s more incendiary album-openers (like the abrasive “Going for The One” or dissonant “Gates of Delirium”), but the eight-minute Heaven & Earth cut effectively bridged past and present on this outing—giving Davison a chance to sing material he had a hand in writing. Squire’s whimsical “The Game” segued nicely into the Fragile portion of the set.
We heard Davison tackle “Roundabout” last summer when Yes played Cain Park in Cleveland Heights. But it was interesting hearing his take on Anderson’s multi-track vocal showcase “We Have Heaven.” Other interpretations included Downes on Wakeman’s symphonic “Cans and Brahms” instrumental and White on Bruford’s flam-and-paradiddle piece “Five Percent for Nothing.” Howe shined (as usual) on his classical guitar solo, “Mood for a Day” (which gave the other musicians a well-deserved break, and Squire mesmerized with his melodious bass solo, “The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus),” which—as on vinyl—followed “Long Distance Runaround.”
But the true Fragile spotlights were its long-form tunes: The rambunctious in-and-around-the-lake refrain of “Roundabout,” swirling snowbound strains of “South Side of the Sky,” and cosmic staccato of “Heart of the Sunrise” engaged the predominantly middle-age crowd like never before.
Ebullient two-part encore “Your Move / I’ve Seen All Good People” (from The Yes Album) tied the proverbial ribbon on the album-sides showcase—and occasioned yet another guitar swap (acoustic to electric) for Howe, who dueled with Downes during the outro as Davison and Squire led up the “So satisfied I’m on my way” sing-along. But Howe wasn’t the only fellow switching instruments during the show: Squire tabled his Rickenbacker to play a custom green Jim Mouridian bass on “Owner of a Lonely Heart”—just like the one seen in the 1983 music video.
The FM radio smash came off so well that it probably didn’t occur to most in attendance that only two of the five Yessians on stage were in the lineup that recorded the song in 1983. And while we’ve long suspected that Howe would rather not play Rabin-era tunes, he seemed to have fun with it, banging out the familiar chord progression on a Stratocaster as folks danced in the aisles. Taken with the rest of the evening’s artsy, adventurous musical menu, “Owner” was the odd duck, but it was nonetheless a crowd-pleaser.
Which—when all’s said and done—is precisely the idea.
Rick Wakeman once remarked that Yes is (and shall forever be) whoever happens to be in the band playing “The Yes Music” at any given time. Like a football team whose name (and affiliated logos) remains constant even as members shuffle in and out over the years, the band is less concerned with individual ego than with the perpetuation of certain collective musical ideals. In the 1991 documentary Yes Years, Anderson likened the band to a bus, whose passengers get on and off as its paths and destinations change. Squire—the band’s anchorman—has opined in interviews that an iteration of Yes may still exist a century from now, performing the same familiar body of prog-rock, just as orchestras around the world recreate the music of Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven for today’s enthusiasts.
Here’s hoping the group’s inexcusably long-deferred induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is catalyst enough for another reunion, and that Anderson, Wakeman and other surviving alumni (Bruford, Rabin, etc.) can jam anew with their Yes brethren.
What a “Wonderous Story” that would be.