Thursday, July 19, 2018

Yes at 50 Tour

I was feeling kind of bummed for the last  few days that I didn't fully enjoy myself at the Erasure show (although I've kind of decided that it's not fully my fault. Some of it was my sour mindset for the night. But some of it was that while Erasure does have some good songs, too many of them sound alike, and are really mostly of interest to dance too. I wish they'd thrown in their ABBA cover, "Take a Chance on Me", to change it up a little. But I digress).

In any event, while I  was at the Retro Futura show in Westbury on Friday night, I noticed that Yes was appearing there this week. I checked online, and saw that there seemed to be an ample number of tickets left for me to pick one up at the show on Wednesday night, if I chose to do so.

Now I've seen Yes three times in the past -- four if I count Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe -- and I do. I saw them at Madison Square Garden for the Drama tour, at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium for the 90125 tour, and back at Madison Square Garden again for the Union tour. And I saw ABWH at the Nassau Coliseum for the tour for their eponymous album, with Tony Levin playing bass. I didn't originally plan to see Yes this tour, because I'm at a point in my life where I've been trying to concentrate on my bucket-list bands -- bands I've never seen before but want to. But as I thought about it more, I realized that Yes is one of my favorite bands. And it's the same situation as with Howard Jones and Thomas Dolby. I've never seen Thomas Dolby, but I've seen Howard Jones four times. I wish I could trade one of those Howard Jones shows and see Thomas Dolby once, but that's how life is. So if you never get to see Thomas Dolby, but you get to see Howard Jones four times, then make the most of it and enjoy Howard Jones. I love Yes and Pink Floyd about equally, and I never got to see Pink Floyd. But if I never got to see Pink Floyd, but I got to see Yes  four (five) times -- then I should make the most of it, and just enjoy the hell out of Yes.

If you haven't kept up with it, Yes is having weird times these days. Just like in the ABWH days, there are two competing versions of Yes out there right now. There's the version that Chris Squire was running until his death in 2015. That band currently consists of Steve Howe on guitar; Alan White on drums, Geoff Downes (the former member The Buggles who joined Yes for the Drama album) on keyboards; Billy Sherwood (Chris Squire's self-chosen successor) on bass; and Jon Davison (the former lead singer of Glass Hammer) on vocals. Their situation has been further complicated by the fact that Alan White had back surgery last year, and caught a bacterial infection in his joints last November, leaving him unable to play for more than a few songs a night. So Jay Schellen (who?) is playing drums for most of the night for every show. This is the band who played in Westbury last night.

The other version of Yes includes vocalist Jon Anderson, guitarist Trevor Rabin, and keyboard player Rick Wakeman. They originally billed themselves as Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman (ARW). But when Squire passed away, supposedly with his widow's blessing, they changed their name to "Yes Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman". There is bad blood between these two units, but after the Chris Squire version of Yes vs. ABWH court case (which eventually resulted in a unification of those two Yes factions), they've all figured out that if they go back to court, the only ones it will benefit will be the lawyers. So they've struck an uneasy truce. And right now, they're both out on the road, playing separate Yes 50th Anniversary tours.

At this point, I'd like to officially announce that this fall, a third version of Yes, featuring myself, Denise, our two kids, and Chris Squire's corpse will be be making our premier tour. We'll be billing ourselves as "Yes Long Island - A Weekend at Chris's". (What, too soon?). I'll be playing kazoo. My first lesson is next Thursday. You should be aware though, that we'll have to transpose all of the songs downwards -- Denise's voice is much lower than Jon Anderson's.

In any event, the Howe/Yes tour has been a bit of an extravaganza, all leading up to a big Yes-Fest in Philadelphia this coming Saturday, which will include both afternoon and evening performances, will feature guest performances by former Yes keyboardists Tony Kaye and Patrick Moraz, and will also include an art exhibit by the man responsible for most of Yes' cover art over the years, Roger Dean. The tour itself has featured guest performances from time to time from Moraz, Kaye and Trevor Horn. I was hoping for a surpise appearance by Moraz (who played with the band on their Relayer album), but after chcecking their recent setlists on setlist.fm, I realized (correctly) that Moraz wasn't likely to turn up, but that Kaye was.

So that was the story. I had a quiet day yesterday, and left the house a little after six to take myself back to the NYCB Theater in Westbury. The crowd there was much larger than it had been for the Retro Futura show, but I was still able to buy a ticket at the box office.

I was told that Roger Dean was in the lobby -- I believe it was true, because I did see a big area in the middle where they seemed to be selling his art -- but it was mobbed there, so I just headed right into the arena.

I soon found myself in a comfy seat with an aisle on one side and an empty seat at the other. Yes being Yes, the tiny rotating stage was packed with equipment (although if Wakeman had been there, it would have been worse -- he could have taken up the whole stage by himself, and still had more equipment in the aisles).

The band opened right up with their 1972 classic, "Close to the Edge". The crowd went nuts. As the band rocked out, hips were breaking right and left. The nursing homes of Long Island were empty last night.

Now I'm going to tell you some of the negatives. Bear in mind as I do that I still had a really good time at the show, and I'm not at all sorry I bought a ticket. But the thing is, Yes has created some beautiful and complex pieces of music over the years. And these compositions were created for a band that featured virtuoso's at every position. Wakeman (and later Moraz), Squire, Bruford and Howe were all among the top players at their instruments, and Anderson was in the upper echelons of rock vocalists. Even White, when he took over for Bruford, was a pretty damned accomplished drummer. However, this is no longer true of this rendition of Yes. Davison doesn't have the full richness of voice that Anderson has (had? I haven't see him in years), although his voice is strong, and sounds about as close to Anderson's as you can get. Sherwood is Squire's protege, and plays (and looks) very much like him, but doesn't have all of Squire's chops. Schellen seemed to me to be an average drummer at best. Howe is Howe, but the man is 71 years old -- he's lost a half-step, and there are other things going on for him as well (which I'll get into later). And then there's Downes.

I want to say from the outset that I consider Geoff Downes to be a totally legitimate member of Yes, and I like much of his work. I have always loved the Drama album, I enjoy the Fly From Here album, and I'm a big fan of his work with The Buggles. But The Buggles isn't Yes. And Downes isn't Wakeman. He's a much lighter player, and when he tries to play classic Wakeman material, it doesn't always come off well. The problem is that where Rick Wakeman will hit you flush in the face with some full-on Phantom of the Opera shit, Downes' instinct is too often to go cutesy. He's playing the same notes, but kind of sliding through them without hitting them full on. He gets away with it sometimes. But sometimes you're just waiting for that blast of power synthesizer, and you get Wakeman-lite instead. It can't help but be a disappointment.

Then there's Howe. Howe is the reason I accept this band as the most legitimate version of Yes still out there. I'm not a Trevor Rabin fan. Never have been, never will be. For me, if it ain't Howe, it ain't really Yes. But as I said earlier, Howe is now 71 years old. And I can tell you for a fact, with the Yes vs. Yes grudge match currently going on, he's feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders. There's only so much Yes-cred to go around, and especially with White running at about 35-40%, it's all on Howe to keep the people believing that this unit is some form of real Yes. So instead of having the frontman announce the songs, introduce the band, etc., Howe is doing it all himself. He's also taking the majority of the solos and musical flourishes. And where in the old days, Wakeman would do a solo number, and Anderson would do a solo number, the only solo last night was Howe's "Mood for a Day".

As it was, Howe started the night in a kind of a cranky mood. In this small, intimate arena, when one of the faithful feels the pressing need to scream important stuff, like "We Loooove You, Steve!" while Howe is trying to talk, or play on a quiet acoustic number, there's no getting away from it. These kinds of things were annoying Howe last night, and although he admonished the crowd a couple of times, some of the dimmer bulbs never got the hint. (There was also one point during one of the songs where it sounded like a physical fight was about to break out in the crowd. Which given the median age of this audience was just ridiculous.) Now I can tell you that I'm ten years younger than Howe. And when one of my kids gets me worked up, I forget how to even work my cell phone. So it was obvious to me by both his body language and the couple of little flubs that he made that all of this was distracting to the man. And the pressure of being the main guy didn't help. It's easy being Captain America when you can rely on Thor and Iron Man and the Hulk to go smash shit. But when you suddenly find yourself leaning on Hawkeye and The Falcon, it's a whole different story. (What's the line from Big Bang Theory? What are two words no one's ever said? "Help, Hawkeye!").

Now let's discuss the more positive aspects of the night. The choice of the setlist was solid. While the band did play some of the classic numbers, like "Close to the Edge" and "Heart of the Sunrise", they also focused on a lot of the songs that didn't always make it into the live show in the band's classic days. This allowed the audience to sit back and enjoy something different without the inevitable comparisons to Yes's glory days. (And in fact, seeing the probable setlist ahead of time was one of the things that made up my mind to buy a ticket). Some of the songs I'm talking about included a pair of tracks from their excellent Going for the One album, "Parallels" and "Awaken", as well as "Fly From Here, Part I: We Can Fly" from Fly From Here and "Sweet Dreams" from Time and a Word.

The band's second set (they played two full sets with no encores last night, a total of 15 songs) started off a little shaky -- "Perpetual Change" was probably their worst number of the night. It was draggy in the beginning, then turned into total cacophony in the middle. But things got better with the next number, "Does It Really Happen?" from Drama, and even better with the number after that, an exquisitely beautiful version of "Soon" from their Relayer album.

At this point, Alan White joined the band. (He had to work for it, as the arena's famous rotating stage had rotated the drums away from him. I was a little worried he was going to kill himself trying to get to his kit.). Schellen stayed on the stage, but moved to hand percussion and occasionally a couple of electric drums on the side, as the band performed a pretty good version of "Awaken". At other shows on the tour, the band usually ended their regular set after this song, and did the rest of the show as an encore. But for some reason (probably the logistics of getting everyone, including poor White, over all of that equipment and up the ramp, then back down again), on this night, they decided to just continue on with the set, as Howe introduced special guest, Tony Kaye.

Now I'm going to admit something -- I've never been a big Tony Kaye fan. I like all of the majesty Wakeman added to the band, and never blamed them for sacking Kaye, who was essentially a meat and potatoes (or piano and organ) keyboard player. But I have to tell you that Kaye's addition last night really took the band to another level. Now playing as a 7-piece, with Schellen's hand percussion and two keyboardists, the band roared into "Yours Is No Disgrace", and for the first time all night, Howe looked like he had really relaxed and started enjoying himself. And next, they took it up another notch, performing the best and most lively version of "Roundabout" I think I ever saw the band do. They concluded the evening on a high note, with a fine rendition of "Starship Trooper", which ended the night with tumultuous applause and a full-house standing ovation.

So that was the evening. There were ups and downs, but the crowd mostly seemed to only have noticed the ups. As for me, I felt that the night was well worth the price of the ticket. I hope these guys have a great weekend in Philadelphia. They've been a world-class band for fifty years now. Maybe if the other version of Yes works their way back to Long Island, I'll go catch them for comparison. (I'm not a Rabin fan, but I still love Anderson and Wakeman). And while I may have been kind of critical of Geoff Downes in this blog entry, if he and Trevor Horn ever do a Buggles reunion, I promise, I'm there.

I've got another show coming up in a few days, and you know I'll tell you all about it. (And after the show, I bumped into Rich Branciforte and exchanged pleasantries. So maybe sometime soon, I'll throw in a review in Good Times to go with my write-ups here and on the Sputnik Music website.)
Until then, stay cool, my friends.