Bristol Hippodrome, Bristol
11th May 2014
So, what should we make of Yes in the 21st Century with their 50th Anniversary not too far away?
Having produced their first album of new material in a decade, 2011’s Fly From Here, with now departed singer Benoit David, they are on the cusp of another release of new songs, Heaven and Earth, with his replacement Jon Davison who many will know from his work with Glass Hammer.
While Benoit was not accepted by a large section of Yes’ fan base – myself most certainly not amongst them – who consistently called for the return of original vocalist Jon Anderson, Jon Davison seems to have immediately won over the doubters with his vocal performances and likeable on-stage persona. Having seen the band with Benoit on two occasions I thoroughly enjoyed his contribution but tonight was my first experience of Davison who was nothing short of a revelation. He seems to have completely revitalised the band who performed with a passion and precision that has been slightly lacking for some time now and everyone involved gave particularly strong readings of some of the real stone-cold classics of prog.
But lets not get ahead of ourselves.
An important draw for this tour was certainly the introduction of Davison but the real clincher was the promise that Yes would be playing three of their most complete albums in their entirety and in sequence – The Yes Album, Close to the Edge and Going for the One – including some lesser played songs, several of which I’d never seen live before.
Another consideration was the unusual venue.
The Hippodrome in Bristol is not a familiar setting for rock gigs, more used to musicals and theatrical shows, and I had only been there once previously – to see Tommy Steele in 1976 when I was 10 – but what an absolutely fantastic old Victorian theatre, the steeply raking seats of the stalls ensuring that everyone gets a good view plus the two tiers of upper seating and boxes to the sides. Nobody is too far from the stage which certainly helps to build an atmosphere. I now regard this place as a superior location to the also excellent Colston Hall which is just around the corner. Hopefully Yes will start a resurgence for the use of this beautiful place for such events.
Upon arrival the prompt start took my colleagues and I by surprise, it was just half past seven and the girl on the door told us the show had already started. We hurried in to find that it hadn’t but upon finding our seats – bang in the middle of the stalls, Row N – they were taped up and a camera positioned immediately behind. Half a dozen rows in front of the camera also had seats taped off and there was much coming and going as the staff tried to find us alternative seats. It seems that the show was being filmed for U.S. TV to promote their summer tour there (with a future DVD release possible) and the seats were commandeered to accommodate the cameras despite having been sold previously. This was annoying, more so as whilst we were still waiting to be seated the lights dimmed and the haunting sounds of The Firebird filled the air.
This really is a beautiful moment for me, the music so evocative of wonderful shows from previous years and filled with anticipation of what the evening would bring. Despite the frustration of having to wait at the back of the hall by the mixing desk for someone to decide where to put us I was fired up for the show and with a huge cheer the band appeared and the swirling sounds of Close to the Edge began to build, a surprise as I expected a chronological evening starting with The Yes Album and culminating with Awaken at the end of Going for the One. That said, the flow of the set through Close to the Edge and Going for the One in the first half with The Yes Album and encore in the second was near perfect.
Finally, we were seated in Row I, immediately forward of where we had booked so at least there was a bonus to be had. Initially at least the sound was a bit too loud but this was soon resolved and the levels and definition for the rest of the show were probably the best I’ve heard at any Yes gig, Alan White’s snare and Chris Squire’s bass particularly impressive. What appeared to be a full house settled in for what was going to be a long show. The orchestra pit contained cameras stage left and right to focus on Squire and Steve Howe respectively, Geoff Downes’ keyboard riser behind and to the right of Howe with White back and left of Squire leaving plenty of room for Jon Davison in the centre, another camera prowling the back of the stage. Above, a screen showed images and film sequences to support the music, no close-ups of the band as had been the case in earlier shows, and for most of the set I forgot it was there such was the focus on the players.
By the end of a well played Close to the Edge, full of dynamic ebbs and flows, the band were bedded in nicely, warmed up and ready to go with Davison immediately impressive. Remembering the setlist was not an issue for this show, And You and I next in a Wonderful version of one of my favourite Yes pieces. Davison nailed the vocal and the Eclipse section with JD flanked by Howe’s lap steel and Squire’s bass pedals was superb and just right. Tonight’s Siberian Khatru was probably the best live version I’ve heard and it works much better further down the setlist than it does in its usual opener slot as the band are settled in.
So far so excellent; three of prog rock’s true classic touchstones end to end. All have been heard countless times, but now the set subtly shifted into more obscure waters.
For the first stage announcement Chris Squire welcomed us before handing over to Steve Howe whose intro to the second of tonight’s albums described how the band drew upon the things they had learnt in the 5 or 6 years leading up to the recording of Going for the One before hitting the count into a great version of the title track. Davison was again excellent, hitting all the high notes and working the lyrics well through one of the sets real up-tempo high-spots, before a new one for me in a live setting, the beautiful Turn of the Century which Davison just owned, the excellent ensemble playing when the full band came in wonderful to see. Parallels – another live first timer for me – was very good, the verses being the only time in the set where the tempo seemed to drag but this was rectified during the instrumental sections which were excellent. Wonderous Stories was very nicely done and acted as a breather between the rocking Parallels and one of the finest pieces of YesMusic, perennial favourite Awaken, which was utterly superb, Squire deploying his triple-neck bass to fine effect. The crescendos were perfectly realised and Downes did a good job with Rick Wakeman’s ethereal mid-section during which you could hear a pin drop. The finale was nailed – including Downes’ tumultuous final run – and a deserved standing ovation and storm of cheering ended the first half. In fact the audience were also great tonight; appreciative yet respectful, taking it all in and making lots of enthusiastic noise between the songs. It was good to see plenty of younger people in attendance too who seemed to be enjoying it all as much as the seasoned die-hards.
Half time and the twenty minute intermission counted down on the screen whilst much discussion ensued regarding proceedings thus far.
Soon Yes were back with Chris describing recording The Yes Album in Devon and we’re off on the last leg with Yours is No Disgrace, a fine way to start, Steve Howe just fantastic. Jon Davison introduced Steve’s solo spot with Clap which, having seen played countless times proved to be a revelation. Howe played it faultlessly with new variations that made it a thing of wonder. Starship Trooper was also superb with great work from all, Downes in particular seeming to be more comfortable with the different style of this album. I’ve Seen All Good People was fun, entertaining and got everyone dancing before A Venture, a wonderful little addition that worked well, the band almost jamming in the free space of the instrumental section and Geoff Downes excellent in his solo piano work which showed just what he can do. To close the main set the neglected Yes classic Perpetual Change was put through its paces and allowed to shine at the end of a quite brilliant set. The confetti cannon near the end was a nice surprise and very effective from where we were sitting but you have to feel sorry for whoever has to sweep it up!
The band left to a storm of applause but were soon back, Steve Howe introducing the band to huge cheers all round, Squire returning the favour to Howe before people left their seats to gather at the front of the stage and dance along to a joyous Roundabout. If I’m honest this is the one Yes track that I never need to hear live again but this was a rousing and rip-roaring finale and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The band took their bows, Squire imperious with bass aloft above his head soaking up the applause, then all circulated around the stage to thank each section of the crowd, spending a lot of time on this as the cheering continued. Considering the workout they had had they all looked remarkably fresh, although maybe Alan appeared to be feeling it a bit.
Over three hours that really was one of the best of the dozen or more Yes gigs I’ve seen since the first time on the 90125 tour. There were a few minor flubs but the band seem completely revitalised and Davison’s influence cannot be overstated. He has a great voice that suits the music but he is not simply mimicking Jon Anderson; he is his own man, interpreting the material and putting his own spin on it with great care and attention to the originals. An engaging and likeable frontman, he utilises a large amount of Anderson style hippiness which suited the presentation very well. Overall he was superb and didn’t miss a note and not once during the show did my mind turn to think of his illustrious predecessor.
Chris Squire is still at the heart of everything – the heart of the band in fact – master of ceremonies and an absolute bass monster tonight. The sound he got was immense – aggressive, cutting and on the money; as always, a total pleasure to witness. He was also in fine voice and looked like he was enjoying himself and it was a pleasure to see him perform again. Fortunately he’s given up on the Lycra strides that should have an adult certification for their graphic nature, although he did appear to be smuggling a small armadillo.
Steve Howe has been absolutely on fire over the last few years and tonight he was studious, relaxed and note perfect, feeding off the audience and playing superbly, adding little extras to what was expected. His talent even at this stage of his majestic career is astounding.
Geoff Downes, draped in a kind of ‘stars and stripes’ cloak with arms, did a fine job interpreting the Wakeman material pretty well – better than Wakey in some cases – but seemed more comfortable with The Yes Album material and delivered accordingly in the second half but was solid and unfussy throughout. The same can be said for Alan White; rock steady, not flashy, did what was necessary and nothing more, the bedrock on which Howe and Squire can soar.
This is just wonderful music played with passion and precision. Initially I was sceptical of the three album concept as it takes the unknown out of the set and you know what’s coming but I love these three albums and there was not a song I wished wasn’t there. Overall, a fantastic celebration of Yes music that completely validates the band’s continued existence.
Close to the Edge
And You and I
Going for the One
Turn of the Century
Yours is No Disgrace
I’ve Seen All Good People
Chris Squire – Bass, Backing vocals
Steve Howe – Guitar, Backing vocals
Alan White – Drums
Geoff Downes – Keyboards
Jon Davison – Vocals