I’m not a huge fan of Yes. I like them but have yet to break into double figures in terms of albums owned and there is little of their output that I would claim to be knowledgeable about. Having said that, I always list Close To The Edge as one of my favourite albums (and Relayer is probably up there as well) and, if I had a bucket list of bands I wanted to see live, they would definitely be on it, although before last night, possibly not with the current line-up.
You see, for me Yes are Jon Anderson’s somewhat unique vocals. I’m not a musician or a singer, I never will be, so it might be unfair for me to say that, for some bands (Yes and Queen spring to mind) it is the vocalist that makes them. Bands may be made up of good musicians but, surely, anybody can play the music? Does it matter whether is is Steve Howe or Brian May playing guitar? Arguably some musicians bring flamboyance to a live show, Rick Wakeman for example, but as long as all the notes are in the right order… And yet, Queen without Freddie Mercury didn’t really work and I worried that Yes without Anderson would be the same, especially given that, on this tour, they were performing three albums that Anderson sang on. As an aside, I suspect this opinion is based at least in part on how I have “grown up” with the music – when I saw Uriah Heep a few years back I had almost no knowledge of them and, because of that, wasn’t bothered that the lead singer had only been with them since 1986.
An orchestral backing track played while the screen above the empty stage showed the covers of The Yes Album, Close To The Edge and Going For The One, old tickets, flyers, magazine articles and concert pictures. As the pictures flashed by more and more rapidly, the band walked on stage led, appropriately, by the two longest-serving members. Chris Squire, Steve Howe and long-term drummer Alan White are joined in this line-up by Geoff Downes, who previously played keyboards with Yes at the start of the 80s and latest vocalist Jon Davison, who has been with them since 2012.
With the screen now showing random images, as well as projections of the band and, helpfully, the names of the tracks being played, the gig opened with Close To The Edge (a strange choice – given it is possibly their most famous and loved album, I would probably have chosen to end with it). The opening instrumental sounded a little stilted, more staccato than the recorded version but improved once the vocals started. And what vocals… Davison, for the most part, sounds almost exactly like Jon Anderson, which sort of begs the question, if you sound like Jon Anderson do you automatically become a Yes fan or, if you want to sing with Yes can you learn to sing like Jon Anderson? He may have, initially at least and partly perhaps because of my distance from the stage, lacked a bit of charisma and, at times, looked a bit like a guest artist on his own stage, but he could definitely sing.
And the musicians could, obviously, play. Howe, switching between guitars, proved that old fingers can still fly across the strings, especially during the solo acoustic Clap. Downes, surrounded on three sides by banks of keyboards, was often seen with arms stretched between them and one foot reaching for pedals underneath. The rhythm section were solid, Squire at one point playing a three-necked bass and White providing a steady backbeat with little of the over-the-top showmanship that some other drummers.
This was by no means a group of aging musicians going through the motions (although the fact that Howe’s slide guitar looked like it was mounted on a wheeled Zimmer frame, caused me a small chuckle). There may not have been much leaping around on stage but, musically, the likes of Siberian Khatru had all the energy, if not more, of the original.
And yet there, for me, it was all a bit impersonal. Downes seemed to mostly play with his back to the audience (something that turning his keyboards through ninety-degrees would have fixed), Davison’s interactions with the rest of the band seemed staged and lacking in spontaneity and it was forty-five minutes, at the end of Close To The Edge, before anybody spoke and well into the third album before Davison said anything. “That’s the way prog was back then,” said Andy, my gig-buddy for the night. Maybe it was just that there was little new to say to an audience that, mostly, seemed to be long term fans, or maybe it was just a case of letting the music do the talking.
Musically, though, it was a fantastic gig. I knew or recognised more than I thought I would. For some reason I had got it into my head that it was a different three albums being played and that I only knew one of them so, to realise that I owned two and knew tracks from the other was a bonus. Even the encore of Roundabout came from Fragile, another album in my collection. As the gig went on Davison’s presence seemed to grow until, during Starship Trooper, he was smiling and encouraging the audience to clap along. The vocal harmonies provided by Howe and Squire were brilliant, especially during I’ve Seen All Good People and the set ended in big, but not grandiose style, with a brilliant rendition of Perpetual Change, the climax of which brought the near sell-out crowd to their feet, where they stayed, clapping, cheering and shouting for more until the band returned for the inevitable encore. They rose again as the band took their bows and Davison shook hands with those closest to the stage.
Did I enjoy it? Yes, perhaps more than I expected to.