By ProgBlog, May 15 2016 08:25PM
You know you’re going to a Yes show when the beer on tap in the local pub (The Queen’s Arms, 30 Queen’s Gate Mews) is called Galaxy Equinox...
I was at the Royal Albert Hall last week for the last night of the UK leg of the Yes 2016 tour and, considering that I’m still one of those people that aren’t fully convinced by the idea of Yes without Jon Anderson, I was pretty impressed.
I was at the same venue, in the same seat two years ago almost to the day for the Yes Album, Close to the Edge and Going for the One albums performance, a concept I am very much in favour of because I’m not a great fan of surprises. When I’m on call I like to know in advance when there’s some work coming in, so I can organise my transport and when to eat, being a creature of habit and routine. It’s the same with music and may explain why I used to be very reluctant to impulsively buy records that I hadn’t heard. When Drama came out in 1980 I was pretty sure the music would be good because it was conceived by 60% of the previous incarnation of Yes, and it was. That’s not to suggest that I wasn’t filled with trepidation when I heard that Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn were replacing the departed Anderson and Wakeman and furthermore, I refused to go to see the Drama tour when they played the Lewisham Odeon, near my university college, on December 12th 1980. I think Drama turned out to be a far more coherent effort than Tormato (1978), returning to some of the heaviness that was evident on Fragile (1971) and making this current tour, pairing Drama with Fragile, such an intriguing prospect.
Apart from the musical emphasis, the major difference between this performance and that in 2014 was the absence of Yes founding member Chris Squire, his death in June last year leaving the band without any original members. During treatment for the leukaemia that ultimately killed him, Squire had passed on his wishes for Yes to continue and with Steve Howe and Alan White who had joined for the third and sixth studio albums respectively, and with Downes who had rejoined the band for Fly From Here (2011) after his earlier very brief stint for Drama, there was sufficient heritage for the name and spirit of the group to continue. Squire had also anointed his successor, sometime collaborator and former Yes member during the Open Your Eyes (1997) and The Ladder (1999) period, Billy Sherwood.
I went to see the Open Your Eyes tour in March 1998 (Chris Squire’s 50th birthday) at the Labatt’s Hammersmith Apollo, and was pretty confused why Sherwood, playing second guitar, was required. I think that album is a bit of a retrograde step after the studio tracks on the two Keys to Ascension albums (1996, 1997) as it appears to be somewhere between the adult techno power-pop of the 90125 incarnation and the more visionary and diverse material that had emerged from the Anderson/Howe axis. One of the reasons that I don’t consider 90125 (1983), Big Generator (1987), Talk (1994) and Open Your Eyes as prog is the sonic uniformity, a lack of light and shade, though the hidden track that commences two minutes after the end of the last track on Open Your Eyes, The Solution, is more than 16 minutes of ambient sounds and features chimes and lines of lyrics from the other songs on the CD. This was used to introduce the live performances in 1997 and 1998 and, with an eclectic set list which included personal favourite The Revealing Science of God from Tales, it was a really good show.
Back to 2016 and the Royal Albert Hall gig began with a short set from Swedish support act Moon Safari. Musically they come across as a hybrid of (late 70s) Genesis and Yes with some remarkable vocal harmonies, ending with Constant Bloom, a truly stunning a cappella dedication to Chris Squire. Then before Yes took to the stage we were treated to the rather poignant Squire tribute that’s been a feature of the tour since the bassist passed away; a single spotlight on Squire’s Rickenbacker as Onward was broadcast over the PA accompanied by images of the man himself throughout his Yes career on the screen behind the instruments.
I’ve seen them play material from Drama before of course but it was interesting to witness the entire album in running order, including the very short but amazingly well-formed White Car which somehow manages to fit a whole symphonic suite into one and a half minutes. The bass parts on Drama are typical Chris Squire and it was here that Sherwood showed not just how good a bassist he is but how he’d adopted Squire’s mannerisms, from the prowl to the upright stance and the way he held his instrument. At the end of Run through the Light it was left to Downes to descend from his keyboard rig and announce the special guest for the evening, his former Buggles partner and Yes producer Trevor Horn for probably the highlight of the album Tempus Fugit.
I was expecting a couple of surprises for the performance and the first was Steve Howe paying tribute to his predecessor in Yes, Peter Banks, who died in March 2013. This came out of the blue because according to his biography Beyond and Before (Golden Treasures Publishing, 2001), it seems that Banks held Howe responsible for not being involved in any Yes reunion. To be fair to both of them, Banks didn’t bear any grudges and before they played Time and a Word, Howe acknowledged the uniqueness of Banks’ playing. The next song was the immensely enjoyable Siberian Khatru and the sequence of unexpected numbers continued with Soon, the movement of resolution from Gates of Delirium which was disguised by a few unrelated introductory bars, followed by Howe announcing that this particular version of Yes weren’t frightened to play music from any of the incarnations of the band and ploughing into Owner of a Lonely Heart.
Normal service was resumed with Fragile, in album running order. Roundabout was brilliant; it was odd to see Downes performing Cans and Brahms but this was one of the pieces that turned me on to classical music in the first place; this short piece was followed by the even shorter We Have Heaven with Jon Davison helped out by his band mates and, after a very satisfying rendition of South Side of the Sky, we were treated to Alan White performing the Bruford-penned Five per cent for Nothing which has to be the shortest song in the Yes canon, coming in at under 40 seconds! Following the musically playful art-song Long Distance Runaround, The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus) was another showcase for the talents of Sherwood, complete with audience baiting ending; Howe’s rendition of Mood for a Day was a little hesitant at times and I thought that throughout the evening there were times when the guitar parts ran on ahead of the rest of the ensemble but ending a gig with Heart of the Sunrise and an encore of Starship Trooper is never going to be anything other than deeply satisfying.
Any gripes that I have are inconsequentially minor: The big screen was rather low-tech; the sound wasn’t quite as clear as it was in 2014; Jon Davison sang in tune but occasionally seemed out of key. All this is irrelevant because they recreated the albums with a remarkable degree of precision considering both the complexity of the music and reproducing it in a live setting. I’m grateful for Downes’ ear for accuracy, too, as he uses early 70’s keyboard sounds and not the thin sounds that crept into Yes music when polyphonic synthesizers first appeared on the scene and even continued to be used in the live setting up to and including the 35th Anniversary tour; I certainly don’t envy Davison stepping into the Anderson shoes... No, this was a really enjoyable show.
Oh, the Celt Experience Galaxy Equinox was a pretty good beer, too.