This post is the part of my Yes concert series of posts. I started this series here and you can read the others here.
I saw the progressive rock band Yes play at the Borgata in Atlantic City, New Jersey on August 9, 2015 during their North American Summer Tour. The opening band was Toto. You can read more about this show here.
The line-up Yes fielded that show was:
The set Yes played was (the album from which the song comes in parenthesis):
I have taken a few days to think before I sat down to write this review because I have a lot of mixed feelings about this show. I am not sure if I have resolved those feelings completely, but I think I have crystallized them enough to write something sensible here.
By way of background, Yes co-founder Chris Squire, who has played on every album and every tour and every concert in Yes history (the only Yes man who can claim to have accomplished this feat, the technical and arguable issues of ABWH aside), passed away rather suddenly on June 27, 2015 (I wrote more about this here). Now, as any Yes fan knows, Yes’ membership and lineups are notoriously unstable. Except for bass (Chris Squire’s slot in Yes), every member and instrument has changed hands (and often changing back) many times over its forty-seven year history (and many more than once), and that even includes bass if one counts ABWH as Yes. So, the loss of Squire, in theory, ought not be more significant than the loss of anyone else, especially co-founder and vocalist Jon Anderson, as Yes has shown itself to be more than the sum of its parts and an entity that exists regardless of and despite its membership as the Yes sound nearly always seems to continue regardless of who is in it; however, despite all that, the loss of Squire seems to be the biggest loss Yes has ever experienced and, in my mind, has plunged the band, or at least my view of the band, into an existential crisis.
It should be noted that, despite having the reputation for having a rotating lineup, Yes’ personnel is actually a lot more stable than people like to admit. Yes formed in 1968, founded by the duo of Squire and Anderson. Squire has been in Yes ever since (until now). Starting in 1970 the core of Squire, Anderson, and guitarist Steve Howe formed. In 1972 that core expanded to include drummer Alan White. From 1972 to 2015 there has never been a Yes (again leaving the technical and arguable issues of ABWH aside) without at least three of these men in the lineup and all four have been in Yes from 1972 – 1979, 1991 – 1992, 1996 – 2008. With Squire’s passing, Yes’s “core,” for the first time since 1970, has been reduced to just two and neither can claim membership in the original quintet, which consisted of Anderson, Squire, Bill Bruford (drums), Peter Banks (guitar), and Tony Kaye (keyboards). It is now possible, for the very first time in Yes history, to watch or listen to a Yes lineup (or indeed even ABWH) that contains no current Yes members. This is perhaps why Squire’s loss has hit me so much harder than the loss of Anderson. At least with the loss of Anderson the core still retained three of them (as it did without Anderson during the Drama era for example). Now the core is reduced to two and, in a five man band, can two really be considered “a core,” especially since neither, either together or separate, can lay claim to every era of Yes? For the very first time in Yes’ history, its lineup has lost all continuity with its origin. Looking at the current lineup, they have no members from the original lineup, one member from the Bruford years, two members from the classic lineup, and one member from the 1980’s version. As a result, I think, for the first time since its founding, a line up of Yes is now together which should be experiencing an existential crisis.
Is the current Yes really Yes or a very qualified and authentic tribute to Yes? Well, I think the answer to that question really depends on how the current Yes moves forward. Who are in Yes? Well, Squire has been replaced by Billy Sherwood as bass player and backup vocalist. As Yes fans will know, Sherwood is not just some bass player off the street that did well in an audition. Sherwood has a long pedigree with Yes. He became friends with Squire back in about 1988 and, from that time on, became something of Squire’s protege. He started his formal association with Yes as a session player and song writer who wrote and performed a song that appeared on the Yes album Union in 1991. In the early 1990s, Sherwood joined Squire’s side band The Chris Squire Experiment. In 1994 Sherwood toured with Yes as an on stage backup musician on their Talk Tour. After that he helped engineer and mix Yes’ Keys to Ascension and Keys to Ascension 2 albums. All of this culminated with Sherwood joining Yes as a full member, not as a bass player (because Squire was in the band) but as a second guitarist and second keyboardist, and making Yes’ Open Your Eyes and The Ladder albums and touring in support of them. Sherwood departed Yes in 2000 but then, after that, joined forces with Squire in a band called Conspiracy. Eventually, Sherwood again returned to Yes for more engineering and mixing work in 2014 for Yes’ Heaven & Earth album. Sherwood has been a huge Squire fan since his childhood, which made him pick up bass playing and singing to start with, and his 25+ years as Squire’s protege makes Sherwood the natural successor to Squire if there ever was one, not to mention the fact that he is a world class bass player and singer in his own right who can more than play in Squire’s style. Geoff Downes also has significant Yes pedigree, being the keyboard player during the Drama era, the Fly From Here era, and now the current era which includes Heaven & Earth (of course, he also has had a long history with Steve Howe in Asia). Finally, Jon Davison, who joined for the Heaven & Earth era also has two Yes live albums under his belt (see here and here). Davison is an amazing vocalist that is a worthy successor to Anderson as he can sing all of Yes material very well, is a multi-instrumentalist, and prolific song writer.
So, the current Yes has a strong line up and good connections with Yes past and has a lot of potential. I think if the current Yes wants to have credibility as an authentic and vibrant iteration of Yes into the future, as opposed to merely a band doing great homage to great music, Yes needs to make new music with the new line up and focus their live shows on material which features Downes and/or Sherwood and/or Davison. I think live sets heavily featuring other eras of Yes is just too disconnected from current Yes to sound truly authentic. I think rather the current line up should sprinkle their sets with the old classics while focusing on material more relevant to its actual members, as opposed to material that too few – or indeed any – current member was involved in when it was written and recorded.
Unfortunately, promoters want Yes to keep playing full album tours (like here and here) which feature too few current members, but, on the bright side, Yes intend to include the entire Drama album in their set for their 2016 touring (which includes three current members) and Sherwood and Davison are very keen on making, and focusing upon, new music (especially Sherwood) and, word has it, Downes and Davison have an epic length piece prepared for recording (reportedly called “Pyramids”) and there are a lot of songs from the Heaven & Earth sessions that still remain to be recorded and released. So, Yes is truly at a crossroads between falling back into becoming a nostalgia act and slowly closing out their career or retaining their vitality and continuing to make new music and establish their sound and identity for the future. I hope Yes is able to thread the needle by playing a whole classic album live which is balanced out by new material.
I really like everyone in this iteration of the band and I really think they can come together to form a fantastic version of Yes, create their own (and credible) live versions of Yes classics, as well as make new music that will stand up proudly in the Yes catalog. I think, with the addition of Sherwood, they have a great core of composers and between him, Davison, and Downes, can embark Yes on a new and modern era. I just hope they take the opportunity to do it!
This show was in a casino and was effectively a “double bill” (with Toto), which is to say that Toto was not an “opener” but had equal stage time (a similar double bill with Yes and Styx can be read about here). My complaints about seeing a Yes show at a casino have been expressed many times before and can be seen here. As a result, Yes had to keep their set short and sweet and concise, which, unfortunately, does not bring the best out of Yes or do their music justice. I brought a couple of friends to this show (their first Yes show) who have observed my Yes fandom for the better part of twenty years (one of which lived with me in college and heard it first hand every day for a couple of years) and, I have to say, was hoping for a set that explored Yes’ more complex, dynamic, longer, and diverse back catalog more than it did for their first time seeing them. I hope they give Yes a chance to expand a little more at another concert. At this show the set focused on shorter and simpler songs to accommodate the length of the show and the sort of show it was (a double bill “summer rock” type show) which, I do not think, really represents Yes’ music as well as it could. The pieces were all played at a decent tempo similar to their tempos as originally recorded in the studio. The live arrangements of the songs was pretty loyal to the studio as, I imagine, they are still trying to find their feet from the loss of Squire as opposed to experiment with live arrangements, so this show did not feature very much divergence from the studio recordings or flashy performances aside from the solos. As one may expect, Squire’s dynamic and larger-than-life stage presence was sorely missed. This is not to say that I did not think Sherwood did a good job, quite the contrary; I think it is possible to say both that Sherwood did a great job and that I miss Squire at the same time. Indeed, I hope, as Sherwood continues to evolve into his role as Yes bass player, the void left by Squire can be filled a little better and I hope it is filled by Sherwood.
I thought Yes’ performance was precisely average for them. Now, I will give them the benefit of the doubt. They were playing only their third show of the tour and only the third in their history without Chis Squire and it was clear, to me, that his memory weighed heavily on them, especially Sherwood, as they were trying to find their feet in developing a new sound, style, and performance without him. As a result, their sound was almost reticent at times (though that may over state the case a bit). I trust that as this quintet continues to gel that they will break out and truly rock. Indeed, Alan White has stated in interviews that he had to try and educate Sherwood of all the unspoken things he and Squire have done together in the rhythm section for the last forty-three years. I thought their individual performances were very good. I have to say that Howe’s playing was not quite as aggressive and flashy as it usually is, but I think that is because he spent so much time during the show conducting the band, which is a role he never really played before, or at least not to this degree. On many occasions through the show, Howe could be seen facing the band and, often using his hand, counting off cues and drum breaks. I imagine this can be chalked up to Yes still finding its feet without their founding bass man. Sherwood’s performances did Squire proud, though I found his playing and stage presence to be somewhat reserved, likely due to the emotions he feels filling in for his friend. On Facebook Sherwood has stated that he still feels the weight of Squire on his mind and with each passing show it gets a little lighter, so I expect his performances to become more dynamic as the tour continues. Downes’ playing was solid as usual but, considering the set list, there were few true keyboard workouts for him to play. Downes’ style is markedly different from Rick Wakeman‘s style, which is not to say Downes is not as good necessarily, just different. Downes tends toward a “less-is-more” approach whereas Wakeman’s reputation (which is well deserved at that I would say) is to try and cram as many notes as fast as possible into each measure. Now some (including me) think Wakeman’s approach is exciting and impressive and flashy, but I try not to allow that impression to be mistaken for “better.” The problem for me is that Wakeman’s sound is so ingrained in Yes’ sound that Downes’ more reserved approach is very noticeable to my ears. Davison continues to get stronger and stronger. His stage presence has really improved and he truly owns his role as Yes’ lead singer by respecting the long shadow cast by Anderson but by also being himself on stage. His musicianship, aside from singing, has really come to the fore in his excellent guitar playing and percussion playing. Finally, Alan White’s performance has been the same for the last five or six years, which is to say a more modest approach to the drums which, I think, is a concession to his age (the pony tail and hat is a new and fun addition to his on stage look).
The mix was average at best, which is disappointing because I got seats directly in the middle of the theater to ensure I heard the best sound. For about the first half of the show Sherwood (both bass and vocals) and Downes were mixed very low while Davison’s singing, Howe’s guitar, and White’s snare drum mixed really high (consistently with Toto’s sound). Howe’s singing was almost impossible to hear throughout the show. When Sherwood’s bass became more audible the show, for me, markedly improved. Behind the band was a large stage-length screen which had images projected onto it throughout the show.
As an aside, some guy two seats down from me was recording the show as I saw his microphone between the sets.
In terms of the songs, the show began with a memorial to Chris Squire. The memorial featured Squire’s vintage Rickenbacker 4001D bass guitar under a spotlight in Squire’s spot on stage while slides depicting Squire through the years were presented on the screens behind the band and Squire’s song “Onward” was played (the band did not play the song, it was the album recording). This memorial led into a truncated recording of Yes’ typical walk-on music (the Firebird) which led directly into “Don’t Kill the Whale,” a rarely played song which has never been played as an opener before. I assume “Don’t Kill the Whale” was selected because it is a Squire song with a “fishy” theme as an homage to Squire’s nickname “Fish” (Sherwood goofed the introduction by coming in on the wrong beat). Yes then launched into quality versions of “Tempus Fugit,” “America,” and “Going for the One,” all of which seem to fit the “summer rock” vibe. Between “Don’t Kill the Whale” and “Tempus Fugit” Davison (on electric bongos) and White on cymbals played a brief percussion duet while Howe switched guitars. Each track got a little more lively than the previous as the show progressed. Davison led the audience in thanking Squire and remembering him before “America.” Howe did the introduction for “Going for the One.” This led into the big surprise of the night: “Time and a Word.” Howe used hand gestures to keep time during the song. The song was the big surprise because (1) no one in the band originally played it and (2) aside from when the song was first introduced in 1970, the three Keys to Ascension shows in 1996, and very brief excerpts in 1989 (here) and 1999 (here), Yes only played this song in 1978 – 1979. The version of the song in 2015 had the sound of the original (minus the orchestra of course), was electric, like in 1978/79, but more-or-less had the arrangement from the Keys to Ascension era. Naturally, as an electric song, the keyboard solo was played on a synthesizer (as opposed to Wakeman’s piano on Keys to Ascension) and in decidedly Downes’ style as opposed to Wakeman’s very busy style. I have to say that these first five songs were very unexpected, and pleasant, surprises, as none are frequently played. Aside from the rare “Time and a Word,” “Don’t Kill the Whale” is nearly as rare (played only in 1978/79, 2002, and only occasionally in 2004), and “America” is pretty rare as well (after 1972 it was not played until the three Keys to Ascension shows, 1997, 2002, and 2012). Since 1977 “Going for the One” was not played until the three Keys to Ascension shows and then played in 2004 and 2013. Of course, “Tempus Fugit” has been played a lot since 2008 but it was never played between 1981 and 2007. So, the first half of the show felt new and different and interesting in the songs selected.
The remainder of the show was more “classics” oriented. “Clap” was cool in that Howe appended the introduction to “Astral Traveller” to the beginning of “Clap”, which got the crowd excited. On “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” Howe finally turned up the distortion and played with a strong muscular sound for once and that makes all the difference for that song. He even added some good effects to the solo-break to sound more like Trevor Rabin’s solo (good on for Steve Howe for being a team player!). “I’ve Seen All Good People” is the same as always, and I have to note that Sherwood retained Squire’s “oh oh oooh!” toward the end of “Your Move” which Squire added live and does not appear in the studio. Also, they goofed on the intro to “Your Move.” Howe introduced the song and then broke into singing its first verse, which is a cappella, entirely by himself (as opposed to in three part harmonies with Davison and Sherwood), which prompted him to say something like “I’ll be singing this song by myself apparently!” It was a funny moment! “Siberian Khatru” is one of my favorite Yes songs and I was happy to hear them play it live. I love how smooth it is despite all of the twists and turns it takes. Notably, aside from a couple of more-or-less isolated exceptions, this is the first time this song was not played as the concert opener. “Roundabout” was not the encore but was played as the last song of the main set. I suspect if this was a set of typical length it would been first encore with “Starship Trooper” as second encore. Speaking of the encore, “Starship Trooper” concluded with its traditional “Wurm.” Sherwood played a very modest bass solo recalling what Squire would have done, but kept it very simple. Downes whipped out a keytar for a little flare at the end of his solo in “Wurm.” My complaint for this song is that Downes’ seemed to strip down some of the Hammond sections in “Life Seeker” and simply did not play for a few measures. At the end of the “Wurm” Davison added some vocalizations that recalled what Anderson did years before as captured on Yessongs.
My fandom of Toto has always been a part of my fandom of Arena Rock in general. I enjoy it and listen to it but will never be a fan of it like I am of prog rock. So, I appreciate Toto in that vein and this concert reinforced my perspective on them. Toto’s concert, and entire presentation, naturally bears a lot of similarity to Styx when they opened for Yes in 2011. So, very loud, a lot of bombast, excitement, and stage presence revving of the crowd was the order of the day. They played really well and I enjoyed them. Toto suffered from the same bad mix as Yes for much of its set where only the singing, guitar, and snare drum could be heard most of the show. The keyboards did not become more prominent until about half way through. The bass guitarist could have not been on stage at all as he was so inaudible as to make him pointless, and the same goes for the percussionist as well but for the couple of times he was featured. Before this show I did not realize just how big Toto’s stage membership is, which includes a guitarist, bass guitarist, percussionist, drummer, two keyboardists, a lead singer, and two backup singers. Each keyboardist played with one hand a lot of the night, so I am not sure why two were necessary when one could have played both parts using both of his hands. I got the feeling keyboardist Steve Porcaro is in the band, despite having very limited involvement in the music, mainly to ensure a Porcaro is in the band after the death of both of his brothers, both of whom were in Toto. As a side note, Steve Porcaro’s stage moves are really awkward and resemble the dance moves of Elaine Benes. Toto began the show with a variety of sound effects from the classic Wizard of Oz film, for obvious reasons, and played a good mix of their hits and new material from the latest album. Although I enjoy their music I was happy that they played my favorite song of theirs: “Hydra.” During the course of their show Toto made a few references to Yes, and Squire in particular due to his recent death, and described Yes as their musical heroes. Indeed, Toto dedicated their new song “Great Expectations” to Squire. The audience was really into Toto and, in fact, some guys near the stage tried to body surf and someone else ran up and down the aisle waving his hands.