Yes, Like It Is: At The Mesa Arts Center DVD/CD Set: a Review
Yes has just released its latest live album called Like It Is: At The Mesa Arts Center documenting a concert played by the band at the Mesa Arts Center in Mesa, Arizona, on August 12, 2014. This concert was in the context of the Heaven & Earth Tour. The album consists of two CDs and one DVD.
The line-up Yes fielded that show was:
- Jon Davison: lead vocals, guitar
- Steve Howe: guitars, vocals
- Chris Squire: bass guitars, vocals
- Alan White: drums, percussion
- Geoff Downes: keyboards
The track list is as follows (the album from which the songs come in parenthesis):
CD 1: (Close To The Edge)
- Close to the Edge
- And You And I
- Siberian Khatru
CD 2: (Fragile)
- Cans and Brahms
- We Have Heaven
- South Side of the Sky
- Five Percent for Nothing
- Long Distance Runaround
- The Fish
- Mood for a Day
- Heart Of The Sunrise
DVD: All tracks
As I said above, this album documents a show from the Heaven & Earth Tour where Yes played tw0 albums in toto live, as well as some a few other songs to round out the set from Heaven and Earth and The Yes Album. This album contains the entire Close to the Edge album and entire Fragile album (the actual show featured the Close to the Edge songs in reverse order). This album lacks any sort of introduction music that the band had live at the show.
This album serves as a companion to the live album Yes released immediately prior to this one entitled Like It Is: At The Bristol Hippodrome which you can read more about here. Over the past two tours Yes has taken to playing complete albums. Yes’ Three Album Tour featured the entire The Yes Album, Going for the One, and Close to the Edge albums played in their entirety. The Heaven & Earth Tour featured the Close to the Edge and Fragile albums in their entirety. Between this live album and Like It Is: At The Bristol Hippodrome Yes has released the live presentations of all four albums.
I reviewed a show from the tour this album documents which you can see here.
It is also worth noting, sadly, that this album is the last one recorded with Chris Squire in the band. Chris Squire passed away in June 2015 right before this album was released. You can read more about Chris’ passing here.
It is tough to review the music as this is a live album and the music really is derived from much older and established studio albums, so any review of the music could become really a review of those albums. Needless to say, Close to the Edge and Fragile are Yes and progressive rock stalwart albums that stand on their own as classic albums which have stood the test of time. The Heaven & Earth Tour presented these two complete albums played very closely to how they actually sounded on their original recordings. So, the songs on that tour – and consequently this album – were not stretched out, the solos were not expanded, and there was virtually no improvisation. So, in order to avoid reviewing the underlying studio albums, I will focus on the sound of the music more than anything else.
The sound quality of the album is excellent. The sound is crisp and there is great separation between the instruments and between the vocals. I am sure some audiophiles could find things to nitpick, but I have no complaints.
Ultimately, I think whether one enjoys this album depends on whether one likes this particular iteration of Yes and can accept the necessary effect age has had on these musicians who are in their sixth decade of performing.
Now, I am long term Yes fan so I have to admit that I wish Jon Anderson (original and long time vocalist) and Rick Wakeman (classic keyboardist) where back in the band and performing live. That being said, Davison is an amazing replacement for Anderson and Downes is a quality prog rock keyboard player. Of course, Downes’ style is markedly different from Wakeman’s at times, and I can’t say I do not miss Wakeman’s playing from time to time, but Downes’ style makes for an interesting change. Wakeman’s playing is flashy, consistently fast, and with a lot of notes whereas Downes’ playing tends toward a lot of chording and being more understated (more cynical people would say “more tasteful” as compared to Wakeman’s choices). In my opinion, this is a legitimate, excellent, and worthy iteration of Yes.
Does this album reflect any change in their live sound due to age? Only a little. I have to say that Alan White’s playing seems to have been deteriorating (at least in a live setting) since at least 2008 as he has gotten older. He looks like a tired guy on stage once a show is over. Don’t get me wrong, he still is a solid drummer who keeps time and provides some good coloring, but his live playing has gotten a lot less complex. He is no longer the so-called “original thunder machine.” In saying that, though, he does have some pretty good fills, as he does on “Heart of the Sunrise.” Also, Chris Squire’s voice at this point in his career was not what it used to be. I am not saying his singing is not good on this album; quite the contrary, his vocals on this album are very strong and mixed fairly high. The effect of his age is the fact that his vocal parts have been lowered a bit; he no longer was singing in the stratosphere at this point, which provides the songs a slightly different sound than Yes fans may be used to hearing. Some people have claimed that Yes plays the songs too slowly. They did seem to reduce the tempo a little on a handful of songs between 2008 and 2012 (which I think was a concession to help ailing vocalist Benoit David), but with Davison’s joining the band they seem to have sped the songs back up to their appropriate tempos again. Despite that, some still think they are playing too slowly, but I do not think that is a fair criticism at this point. Their live tempos now reflect the tempos found on the studio albums, as opposed to their old practice of playing live a break-neck speeds. The fact is, gone are the days when Yes ramped up the tempos on stage as they used to do in ages past (see Yessongs as an example), but the fact that modern live tempos are slower than their live tempos from the 1970s does not mean that modern live tempos are slow compared to the studio recordings. The other thing to note is that the band’s live tone and presentation on this album is consistent with what they have been largely doing since 1991’s Union tour (with exception of the 1994 Talk tour), which is to have a cleaner and warmer sound as opposed to the dirtier and aggressive live sound they had in the 1970s and 1980s.
I think the music as played on this tour sounds very much like the original studio versions of the songs, so there are not really very many new interpretations to report for the purposes of this review. I think Howe’s playing on this album is typical of his current cleaner style rather than the more aggressive style he employed back in in the 1970s. Regardless of what he thinks, I think his use of a guitar synthesizer does an injustice to the coral electric sitar and twelve string acoustic guitar it allegedly duplicates. It just does not sound right to me. On “Siberian Khatru” it sounded like Downes got sloppy on the harpsichord solo in trying to play it as fast as Wakeman did/can. I am not sure Downes can generate the finger speed! “And You And I” sounds as classic as ever (despite the guitar synthesizer) though, as is typical of these “whole album” presentations found on this album and the prior one, Downes does not extend the keyboard solo like Wakeman would. “Close to the Edge” sounds a little thin, I think, as Howe’s guitar lacks the distortion he used to use and he uses that guitar synthesizer (though his sound on this track has been the same since at least 1998) which I do not think is nearly as good as the original instruments it supposedly duplicates. The organ solo in “Roundabout” has been reworked as a Downes solo as opposed to him trying to replicate Wakeman so whether one appreciates the solo depends on whether one enjoys Downes’ playing or thinks Wakeman’s solo is “classic.” Fragile‘s “solo tracks” “Cans and Brahms,” “We Have Heaven,” and “the Fish” we all played exactly as on the album, which is to say that they all used previously recorded tracks over which the soloist played live in order to recreate the studio recording as much as possible (these tracks are impossible to play live without backing tracks as the were recorded in the studio using multiple layers of overlaid recordings to allow for more sounds than just the five guys in the band can produce). On a personal note, I love having an official live version of “Five Percent for Nothing” as that track is so short, so goofy, and so obscure that I would never have thought they’d ever play it live let alone release an official live version of it. In saying that, I have to say that having musicians play another musician’s solo track (e.g.: current drummer Alan White playing former Yes drummer Bill Bruford‘s solo track “Five Percent for Nothing”) is a little weird and does take the listener “out” of the listening experience if one is aware of it. For that reason I found Fragile to be a really weird choice as an album to play precisely because it has so many solo tracks featuring long departed Yes members (3 of the 5 members of Yes on Fragile are not in the 2014 lineup); if the listener rankles at this, I understand the feeling. My approach simply has been to accept the tracks as a new presentation in 2014 and to appreciate the new approach this particular lineup of Yes gives them. To that end, it appears to my ears that the 2014 lineup recorded itself in the studio to present the studio tracks that need backing tracks instead of relying on using the preexisting recordings on Fragile. So, that gives these live presentation of the solo tracks a little more legitimacy. They are not relying on the old recordings. Since 2002, “Southside of the Sky” has become a classic live track and as much as I absolutely love the Howe/Wakeman guitar/keyboard duel at the end of live version of the song (as memorialized here), Downes does not recreate Wakeman’s sound or his style here. The guitar/keyboard duel is played in Downes’ own style and, I have to say, I think he did a great job and his soloing is really well done. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, as is typical of these full album tours (and therefore this album), the solos were all of a rather modest length (for Yes), so it was not stretched out like on prior tours. Finally, I really love the version of “Heart of the Sunrise” on this album. It is really well done and has a nice dirty sound absent from some recent prior tours.
- The Video (the DVD)
The video is of all of the songs and is an adequate document of the show. The footage is reasonable and fun to watch, though I was a little disappointed in it because virtually none of the video images behind the band are visible, which is a shame since they had a good slide show on this tour. Luckily, for me, the “Southside of the Sky” images and lighting is somewhat visible in the video as I think they did a really good job with it. Unlike the video for the previous Like It Is video, this does not seem to favor any particular musician over the others. It seems to be a much better video presentation which more often than not focuses on the musician one wants to see at a given point in the music. I will say that I think the audio of the DVD is not nearly as good as that of the CDs. It is quieter and far less dynamic to my ears.
As a live album, the album has a quality sound and is enjoyable to hear. As a Yes live album, it is a very accurate document of where Yes was in 2014 and what they sound like. If someone is a fan of and/or enjoys the Yes of 2014, then this album is worth picking up and adding to one’s collection. This album may help people on the fence about the Yes of 2014 to become fans as it shows truly good performances of classic Yes songs and reveals that this line up can hold its own with Yes’ classic line ups in the past. Otherwise, if someone just cannot accept a singer other than Jon Anderson and/or cannot accept a keyboardist from the Buggles and/or Asia in Yes, then this album is not for you.