[With many thanks to Mike Evans, Anthony Firmin, Adam Kennedy and Jeff Cooper for their images, and to Sharon Chevin at The Publicity Connection for co-ordinating.]
Colston Hall, Bristol
Wednesday 4th May 2016
What should a band like Yes actually be at this stage of their career?
As they rapidly approach the 50th anniversary of their formation there has been much discussion about whether Yes is now merely a parody of its former self and whether they should continue at all. I’ll be honest, despite thoroughly enjoying the last time they played Bristol in 2014, after Chris Squire’s health issues and subsequent announcement that he was not going to be part of this tour I decided that I’d pass. His death underlined to me that I had probably seen my last Yes show as Squire had been for many years the main reason why I kept going, the rock upon which Yes’ shows were built. I always enjoyed his performances and his sheer presence on a stage was enough to keep me enthralled. His passing was a very difficult one to take.
But eventually curiosity got the better of me and shortly before this show I decided that the opportunity to see the Drama album played in its entirety was just too tempting to miss. The excitement that I’d felt before previous Yes shows was missing, I honestly didn’t expect that much and wondered how on God’s Green Earth Billy Sherwood was going to even start to fill Chris Squire’s shoes.
Yes’ music has made an indelible mark on my life since I first heard the band (Awaken) 33 years ago(!). I’m sure that it has helped to make me who I am today and I am eternally grateful for having been granted the gift of having it there throughout my entire adult life. Of course, a lot of it does not measure up to the heights of their best work but taken as a whole it is an extraordinary oeuvre that I return to regularly, good and not so good. The history of Yes has often felt like a soap opera and akin to watching a car crash but the best bits of their repertoire will always reign supreme. Drama is an odd detour within the catalogue but has always stood out for me as one of the best of the “later” albums, despite it now being 36 years old! This was the main draw, complete album shows being a strange business, the other to be played tonight a case in point as Fragile contains some real oddities that you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to hear live.
But is this formation of the band actually Yes?
I’ll return to that one later.
And so to a pretty full Colston Hall, and as the lights dimmed a single spotlight picked out Chris Squire’s white Rickenbacker bass in his usual position stage left. The recorded version of Onward from Tormato rang out, as images of Squire appeared on the screen above the stage. And I had tears in my eyes. I expect many others did too, as moving a tribute as you could wish for and very well done.
After the storm of applause, a truncated version of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra intro and the current Yes took their places, Steve Howe’s building guitar motif launching into Machine Messiah, a metallic hybrid of a track that makes for a great opener. The band seemed immediately settled where on previous tours it often took a track or two for them to bed in. Here everything seemed right from the start; the sound levels, the performances, an enthusiastic attitude from a band who seem to have the vim and vigour to put the music across with some style. Having Sherwood on board may well have given them the kick they needed, presenting the album that Downes played on, in full, was also a wise choice and it made for an enthralling 40-odd minutes. It has always struck me that White Car should have been part of something more substantial, but here it was, a strange and melancholic vignette allowed to shine again with a wonderful vocal from Jon Davison. Sherwood completely owned Does It Really Happen?, not only looking the part but playing to perfection with a wonderful tone. I’d loved to have seen Chris play this one but he made the right choice in making Billy the heir apparent to his place and in Drama, the most bass-centric album that Yes ever recorded, the band have given him the perfect opportunity to shine.
The lighting, sound and use of the screen were all spot on throughout, the latter used to interpret the variety of the songs played. Into The Lens showed the poppier side of the Buggles writing influence and album closer Tempus Fugit – a bona fide Yes classic – was hammered out in exquisite fashion with Sherwood at the helm. No problem with the tempos on this tour, in fact on Siberian Khatru Steve Howe struggled – and often failed – to keep up with Sherwood and White as they drove things along. Other than that it was a good version, preceded by a timely and fitting tribute to the late Peter Banks, Yes’ original guitarist, introduced warmly by Howe. The resulting Time And A Word was quite lovely to hear again, and once more Davison delivered it with aplomb.
So, much to discuss during the 20 minute interval but so far so good, an enthralling performance with a particularly worthy centrepiece in Drama. And an unexpected start to the second half; Don’t Kill the Whale with Jon Davison doing well. Steve Howe commented that the band were committed to playing music from all eras of Yes’ history (although I’m not expecting The Ladder or Union to make an appearance any time soon!) and next up Owner Of A Lonely Heart got elderly hips a-shakin’. Personally I could do without this one but it does what it does very well and the band appeared to be enjoying themselves. At one point Howe walked to the side of the stage and leaned against the speaker cabinet while playing. I did wonder whether he was showing his boredom with having to play it but his extended solo seemed to dispel the notion and hopefully some of the petty squabbling regarding setlists and not playing other people’s material have now finally been put to bed.
Second full album of the night and I was a bit nervous about Fragile, a strange choice given that only Howe played on it (three of the current line-up played on Drama, four when Trevor Horn joins the band for the forthcoming shows in Oxford and London). Granted, it contains four absolutely essential Yes pieces but the solo endeavours are a mixed bag to be sure. Of the classics, Roundabout has been played to death over the years but it certainly benefited from being moved from the encore slot, I’ve also heard Heart of the Sunrise numerous times but this was a great version with Sherwood’s beautiful tone in full flow helping the song to fly. The other two are less often played and it was lovely to hear them. I’m not overly keen on a lot of Geoff Downes’ soloing but he is a great ensemble player and a particularly splendid take on South Side of the Sky kicked large amounts of rear end as Howe and Downes stalked around each other during the stomping finale, not to the same heights as the Howe/Wakeman duels of the early 2000s but good enough.
The solo segments of Fragile cause some issues. Of the best, Howe shone magisterially on Mood For A Day. He has been on fire on the last few tours, not quite as sharp tonight but playing some superb lines and on this acoustic showcase he was sublime. A master, pure and simple, and at the end he knew he’d nailed it. I had been concerned about having to endure Sherwood’s take on The Fish, a piece so synonymous with Squire that it was always going to end badly, wasn’t it? No way; Sherwood was a revelation and he got a well deserved standing ovation for his efforts. As one of the many naysayers concerning his inclusion I was completely won over; he justifies his place in one of the biggest asks in music – replacing a total legend. His performance throughout the show was exemplary and his backing vocals superb – both elements different from Squire’s originals but utilising enough from them coupled with his own take to make it work. A true professional, Sherwood has given the band the energy and enthusiasm for them to continue and his performance was the greatest tribute to Squire that any friend could have made. Luckily he hasn’t inherited Squire’s eye-wateringly graphic leggings!
Of the other three pieces, Downes did well with Cans and Brahms, taking Rick Wakeman’s original and re-working it to make it his own. It was never going to be essential but it wasn’t a complete waste of time, likewise with recorded support from the original song Davison did justice to We Have Heaven. JD has a softer and less idiosyncratic voice than Jon Anderson but it works well and does not leave me wishing for Anderson’s return, although despite Davison possessing much of the same hippy vibe, Anderson is simply unique and cannot be fully replicated. A very likeable performance though, as always.
This leaves Five Per Cent for Nothing. It just does not work – but on the plus side it is less than a minute long! It started badly and ended as something of a train-wreck with muted confusion from the audience. Otherwise, Alan White did well overall. Granted, he seems to be quite protected these days and is only playing what he needs to – nothing flash, just solid, but if that’s what it takes then so be it. He still looked a little shaky at the end despite still smiling. Yes could get a young hot shot in but I don’t think that would do them any favours, Alan might be a shadow of his former self but he has been at the heart of Yes for so long now that it is great to see him still part of it all. However, I’m not sure that it’s the done thing to play two entire sets of classic prog whilst wearing a fedora, a fez possibly but I need to be convinced about this particular choice of headgear.
With the crowd standing and shouting enthusiastically Yes – for the band does still justify the name – left the stage, returning for a scalding Starship Trooper that saw Howe revelling in the moment, clearly the band’s leader and lynch-pin. A fantastic version to end a great show with disappointing moments very few and far between.
So, is it Yes?
Well, yes. Sort of. And in all honesty that’s good enough for me. Don’t forget, the classic albums are 40+ years ago now. 40 years! I’m just amazed that a bunch of the same musicians, admittedly with the help of friends and acolytes, can still land a tour like this and play as well as they do. Is it the best Yes ever? No. Is it the worst? No. Is it a tribute? No way, they are carrying forward the legacy of some wonderful music that has enriched people’s lives.
And it is the music that is the winner here.
I’m not expecting Yes to record another Close to the Edge (and likewise hope that they don’t even think about recording another Heaven & Earth), I don’t expect them to ever tour Relayer (although I’d be ecstatic if they did!), but what Yes are currently doing is making a lot of fans very happy, which is the best bit. It is no doubt lucrative for a band at the tail end of it’s career but the most important thing is that the music is still heard, in the most legitimate way available, and it is good to know that they’re out there somewhere playing more shows than you could reasonably expect them to and still drawing enthusiastic and supportive crowds – although it would be nice if just a small percentage of these folk would venture out to see some of the current crop of prog bands doing the rounds and it’s a shame that, other than at the Royal Albert Hall show, they weren’t exposed to the magnificent Moon Safari as originally planned.
Not the best Yes ever but the only one we’ve got so fedoras off to them.
“No Squire/Anderson/Wakeman, no -insert name here-!”? – your loss.
Onward (Recorded tribute to Chris Squire)
– Machine Messiah
– White Car
– Does It Really Happen?
– Into the Lens
– Run Through the Light
– Tempus Fugit
Time and a Word (Tribute to Peter Banks)
Don’t Kill the Whale
Owner of a Lonely Heart
– Cans and Brahms
– We Have Heaven
– South Side of the Sky
– Five Per Cent for Nothing
– Long Distance Runaround
– The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)
– Mood for a Day
– Heart of the Sunrise
Steve Howe – Guitars, Backing Vocals
Alan White – Drums
Geoff Downes – Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Jon Davison – Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Keyboards, Percussion
Billy Sherwood – Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals