It’s quite unbelievable to think that a band of artists can embark on a tour in what is their 50th anniversary year, playing a genre of music known as progressive rock, so far removed from mainstream pop. I have followed YES since 1971 and have never tired of their music, whilst having enjoyed and appreciated many other bands and musical styles. To have sustained the high levels of interest and creativity for that period of time is quite remarkable, particularly….. And what better venue to enjoy them than the London Palladium, built in 1910, arguably the most famous theatre in London and the United Kingdom, especially for musical variety shows. Indeed, several of my grandfather’s brothers as well as his own father work in the theatre in London around that time and may have set foot in this hallowed establishment. Sitting in the upper circle among the paper bag rustlers however, I felt at times like a contortionist doing a Houdini impersonation. It’s a beautiful theatre but the lack of leg-room makes for an uncomfortable few hours. At least my mind was distracted thoughout for the two or so hours by what was happening on stage, as I found myself utterly engrossed entirely by the performance by a truly wonderful set of musicians.
YES has been through many line-ups, some more controversial than others, the current representation being no exception. It may not be the classic early 70’s line-up but they still deliver a flawless performance with gusto and professionalism. The fact that their are two incarnations of the band for fans to squabble over testifies to their popularity. Much of what has been said written by so-called fans in attacking certain members of the band has been vitriolic, childish in the extreme and downright personal. There is not much that can be done to bring back the late Chris Squire, legendary bass guitarist, who, until his untimely and sad passing in June 2015, was the only member of the band to have played on all their studio albums and to have taken part in every single tour. It was a personal Squire request before he died to have his longtime collaborator Billy Sherwood, who played with him on side projects, take over the mantle and fill his huge boots. In terms of his playing style I think he is a natural successor, apart from the fact that he was very much part of the band in the late 1990’s.
The sound at the London Palladium was magnificent and the band were cooking, to put it mildly. The stage lighting too was superb. In many respects I enjoyed the show more than the one a week ago at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, where I sat in the 3rd row centre. For one thing, the sound up in the rafters was more balanced notwithstanding that I could discern the various instruments more easily. For the show up north, I felt that the keyboards seemed too low in the mix at times and the bass was muddy. There is no question that guitarist Steve Howe is the driving force behind the band and one of the reasons I prefer this line-up to that of ARW, whom I saw late last year, featuring founder member and lead singer Jon Anderson, along with keyboardist Rick Wakeman and 80’s guitarist Trevor Rabin, the latter a fellow countryman of mine.
Firstly, the current line-up that includes keyboardist Geoff Downes, has provided an opportunity to hear music from Drama, which I happen to like very much. It was a real treat to hear Trevor Horn guest on Tempus Fugit during last night’s encore (Onward was dropped from the setlist as a result). It is a fact that Jon Anderson has in the past refused to perform anything from that album. I also feel inclined to want to hear some of YES’s arguably challenging but unquestionably more controversial work such as Tales from Topographic Oceans and possibly Relayer (rumour has it that keyboardist Patrick Moraz may feature in some capacity in future, possibly on the next American tour), which Rick Wakeman is reluctant to perform, having left the band in 1974 due to his lack of enthusiasm for that material. Whilst I do enjoy YES’s more commercial Rabin-era music and shorter song format (apart from Talk, which ventured more towards epic-style compositions), I prefer the other material, which I have more desire to see performed live, Talk aside. Having said that, I would go and see both bands.
The rearrangement of classic-era YES songs for ARW’s live performances represented too much of a departure from the original sound, much of which I simply wasn’t too enamored with. Though the idea of re-interpreting the songs is an exciting prospect in itself, I found the sound and arrangements too cluttered and congested at times, with Rick and Trevor soloing full tilt. The simple fact is that my preference is to hear YES music sound as close to the original as possible, which is purely a personal choice. The fact that YES-official are deemed copy-cats by fans who despise the line-up I see as a complement in some respects. The complexity of YES music is such that it takes incredible skill to replicate the parts. Whilst Trevor is a great guitarist, personally, I love Steve’s unique guitar sound, instrumentation and style too much. On other fronts, I do miss Rick’s showmanship and personality. There is no question that he is a better keyboardist and soloist than Geoff, though the latter is a great keyboard player in his own right.
In some respects, what can be said of lead singer Jon Davison is that, paradoxically, he has on one hand found himself in right place at the right time but at the same time not. Allow me to explain. Due initially to founder-member Jon Anderson’s ill-health at the time (roughly 2004) leading to subsequent tensions when Chris Squire was still in the band, Jon Davison was asked to join YES. Jon Anderson has over the years been my favourite singer by a mile. The fact is that the American, more than any other singer, looks and sounds much like Anderson in so many ways most of the time. I shut my eyes during the rendition just before interval last night of And You and I and swore I was listening to Anderson. Until such time as the current line-up of YES release an album of music worthy enough to join the ranks of YES’s classic albums, undoubtedly a daunting and possibly impossible task, replicating rather than replacing the legendary and much loved Lancastrian remains Davison’s role in the band for the forseeable future. I do think he is a truly fine singer and performer. Heaven and Earth certainly has its moments but would have benefited from more time and refinement. It is improbable that a healing of the ways and reconciliation between the respective parties is likely at any time in the near future. Jon Anderson’s voice is still in fine fettle. He is 73 though and certainly not immortal, though his popularity seems that way. His frailty is such that lengthy tour appearances are likely to become more limited as time goes by. My hope is that to be fortunate to hear more great YES music in years to come, regardless of the line-up.