ARW: in Parallel with Yes?
I saw the progressive rock band ARW play a show at the at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, PA on October 16, 2016 during the their ARW Tour. While the official Yes band exists and is touring (see here), former Yes members Jon Anderson (vocals), Trevor Rabin (guitars), and Rick Wakeman (keyboards) decided to form a band – called ARW – and tour in order to do homage to their common heritage as members of Yes. Wakeman recruited his friend, bass player Lee Pomeroy, while Rabin netted his friend drummer Lou Molino III, to flesh out the band. While technically (i.e.: legally) not Yes, the band’s tour is being advertised as “An Evening of Yes Music and More” and in interviews the band seems to view themselves as the next phase of Yes or at least a Yes-band even if they cannot legally use the name. A similar phenomenon happened in 1989 with ABWH, and that band seems to have been folded into official Yes history.
The official Yes has a lineup has been greatly watered down, and I have written a piece on whether it, philosophically/spiritually/ontologically (not legally) speaking, can really, legitimately, and in good faith, claim the name Yes (see here).
When ARW formed, I immediately wondered if that band, with its vaunted line up, would be the true and rightful heir to the Yes name regardless of whether they are legally permitted to use it. ARW currently exists in parallel to Yes (hence the name of this post (see here)).
On the face of it, ARW’s line up is leagues above that of Yes in 2016. Even with only three guys – the A and R and W – ARW members have a stronger claim and are more inherent to Yes history than the five guys of Yes 2016 together. Anderson is, of course, a Yes founder and main song writer, while Wakeman is their most important keyboard player, while Rabin was their prime mover during their 1980s resurgence. Compare this lineup with Yes2016 which contains no founder, and consists of their most important guitar player (Steve Howe), their fourth keyboard player (Geoff Downes who has only played on fairly obscure non-classic albums in 1980, 2011, and 2014), a bass player who had some involvement with Yes in the 1990s but never on bass (Billy Sherwood who was a supporting touring musician, and eventual sixth member, in the 1990s, and played on two non-classic albums (one of which is universally considered the worst Yes album) and helped produce a couple of others), and a drummer who has never played on any Yes album (Jay Schellen). Of course, if drummer Alan White returns, it will increase Yes’ claim to the name as he has been in the band and on every album since 1972 (but those albums do not include the “big three” of The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge). Still, it would seem the scales tip toward ARW as far as a rightful claim to the name Yes is concerned if personnel is the only consideration.
In fairness, though, there is more to a band than membership. When I went to see ARW , I fully expected to see a Yes concert. In many ways it was: it had the voice and keyboard wizardry one expects to see at a Yesshow. In saying that, Rabin has always been difficult for me to embrace. I am not a big fan of his and what he did to Yes in the 1980s. I find his playing has always tended toward a sort of one dimensional generic 1980’s shredder sort of playing (with a vague John McLaughlin edge). His playing always seems to tend toward screaming Stratocaster sounds, with a lot of notes and a lack of diversity in sounds, tones, and instrumentation. As a result, just as he did in his last tenure with Yes, he continues to reinterpret Steve Howe’s guitar parts by flatting them out, eliminating the subtly and stylistic variety and tonal variety and instrumental variety (replacing acoustics, twelve string, steel guitars, etc with a single electric guitar) Steve Howe brought to the music, and replacing all of that with his trademark faux-Van Halen playing. So, unless they played Yes’ 1980s music, Rabin’s guitar playing just does not sound Yessish to me. I am not asking for a Howe clone, but I feel like Rabin’s style is so completely different – and unoriginal and non-prog rock – that it just does not mesh well with Howe’s Yes music. I think this really comes to the fore with songs like “Awaken” or “And You And I,” where they sound completely different and not in a prog rock sort of way.
Surprisingly, though, even with the 1980s songs, Rabin’s live chops seem to have diminished due to his twenty-two years away from the stage. His singing was warbley at times and his playing lacked the excitement and pyrotechnics he used to exhibit during his prior tenure with Yes. He used to a showman, walking the stage and playing to the audience, but, now, that aspect of his performance was gone. His stage performance was reserved, perhaps even conservative, as he seemed to be concentrating on his playing as opposed to his stage presence.
Even if I liked Rabin and his chops were up to snuff, ARW’s performance and sound just was not what I expect from Yes. Yes’s sound has always been marked by the involvement of five completely integrated musicians, each often struggling to make themselves heard in the face of four other strong musicians. Unlike Yes – or a true five piece band – the drummer and bass player in ARW were clearly support musicians. They, more or less, stayed out of the spotlight and were there to support the main three – the ARW. Although the drummer was pretty good, I have to say that his snare drum sounded like a cardboard box filled with old clothes, which is not at all what Yes drums sound like. The bass player also seemed like he was a good bass player, but, unlike Chris Squire, Billy Sherwood, or even Tony Levin, his sound levels was rather low as compared to the other members. Again, because I think he and the drummer were to get out of the way of ARW. Even Tony Kaye or Benoit David, arguably the weakest and/or most humble members of the band, were fully integrated into the sound of the band. By contrast, the bass and drums were clearly secondary to ARW.
While it is difficult to suppress the sound of the drums, to me the biggest contrast with Yes was the bass. It has nothing to do with Pomeroy’s chops. It has to do with the fact that a key element to Yes music is a big, fat, and prominent bass sound pushing back against the guitar and keyboards. The bass parts are not just loud, but key elements to the music itself. Sherwood has kept this tradition alive and, during his brief tenure, Levin respected it. By contrast, Pomeroy’s bass was subdued, and not an equal part of the music as compared to ARW. Indeed, even his placement on the stage – in the back behind Anderson and/or Rabin – tacitly revealed his secondary place in the band. Gone was the powerful bass player on stage going toe-to-toe with the guitarist and/or keyboardist one expects from Yes.
In addition, strong vocal harmonies is also a key element to Yes music. While Anderson’s voice was backed up by the other members of the ARW band, the strong vocal harmonies that are so integral to Yes were missing. The other singers were not mixed nearly as high as Anderson and, quite frankly, Anderson’s voice was not mixed particularly high either. Suffice it to say, the backing singing just was not as as strong as one would expect for Yes. As a result, the music had a much different feel and sound than what one would expect from Yes.
If there was one thing that marked the ARW show I saw is that it was safe. The performances – notably Anderson and Rabin – tended toward the safe notes. Instead of a dynamic high note, a safer more standard note was sung. Instead of the blistering solos of old, Rabin tended to play it safe and were more measured. Even Wakeman – though still amazing – did not play some of the things he used to play. For example, he did not play his more juiced up keyboard parts on “Rhythm of Love” as he did on the Union Tour or similar interesting playing on “Cinema” that Igor Khoroshev played. In his case, though, it seems like a lack of preparation.
So, strangely enough, despite the advantage in the line up, ARW just does not have the sound and feel of Yes. Their sound, thus far, was safe, lacking full integration of the rhythm section, and is missing key vocal harmonies. Despite the lineup disadvantage, the Yes of 2016 sounds like Yes should sound like and presents itself as Yes traditionally has: powerful, five fully integrated members, prominent vocal harmonies, and taking chances.
As with Yes2016, the future of ARW will determine whether they can become legitimate heirs to the Yes name. Right now – despite the Yes nostalgia that Anderson and Wakeman and Rabin bring to bear to ARW – Yes2016, to me, has maintained the spirit, sound, and feel of Yes, whereas ARW merely seems like old friends having fun trying to relive some good memories. My ultimate hope is that the two bands will merge to form one single band – ala Union – and Yes can be reunited into the band it should be with its core members playing and sounding like they should.