Tavistock Wharf, Tavistock, Devon
Monday, 13th June 2022
Some gigs just stand out for unusual reasons, and this is certainly one which will live long in the memories of the lucky few gathered in this small venue, and probably in the memory of a long experienced and ever-touring band who have been unable to play for about three years due to the pandemic.
Perhaps surprisingly, Yes chose to play a warm-up show for their forthcoming UK tour, celebrating 50 years since the release of all time classic album Close to the Edge, at the excellent Tavistock Wharf on the edge of Dartmoor in South West Devon. This is not a place you would expect to see such a legendary band play, and the venue was packed with excited fans, still pinching themselves that they were seeing Yes in their modest local venue.
Yes opened up with a sparkling version of the excellent On the Silent Wings of Freedom, a song only played once since the Tormato tour of 1978/9, and highlighting right from the beginning the outstanding bass work (and boots!) of Billy Sherwood, skilfully filling the shoes of the now sadly departed Chris Squire. One of my favourite ever Yes songs, this was a truncated version, but it is probably safe to say that virtually no-one was expecting it as an opening number. The epic anti-war song Yours is No Disgrace, from 1970’s The Yes Album, has been an almost ever-present part of Yes setlists, and there’s a reason for that as it’s a dazzling showcase for Steve Howe’s guitar work. Geoff Downes contributed powerful keyboards to give the piece momentum, but it was the evergreen 75-year-old Steve Howe who was the star, displaying that he still has the skills and energy to drive on this great dramatic song. After that display of virtuosity, Howe humorously responded to an ironic call from the crowd of “Not Bad!” by saying “I hope we passed the audition!”
Howe was clearly in good spirits playing so close to his home in Devon and shared that Yes have a Devon connection going back to when the band went to the county to write The Yes Album. His versatility and touch were again shown with his customary acoustic guitar interlude, a short improvisation followed by Clap, Howe humorously explaining the unfortunate and unintended title on the album sleeve as The Clap! There was a good rapport between Howe and the crowd, who were clearly well up for the gig.
Steve Howe paid tribute to the sadly recently departed drummer Alan White, the longest continuous member of Yes, who died shortly before the gig, saying “Bless him and love him – he’ll always be with us”, to which the crowd responded with a suitably enthusiastic round of applause. Howe explained that for their full shows there will be a visual tribute to Alan, but the Wharf was simply too small to accommodate the screens and technology. He also honoured the memory of another former and departed Yes member, Peter Banks, when introducing the Richie Havens cover No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed from the second Yes album, 1970’s Time and a Word. This is another ‘deep cut’, resurrected on their 2019 tour after only being played sparingly in 1969/70. It’s refreshing that Yes do not appear to be playing it safe by throwing in some of their less common songs, and the opening theme, based on that of the Western film The Big Country, resounded around the venue from Downes’ keyboards. It is probably just a coincidence but the previous Yours is No Disgrace has a part which some say was lifted by Jon Anderson from the theme for the Western TV show Bonanza… maybe playing down in the far ‘Wild West’ of Devon inspired them! (😊)
Talking of dramas, Yes then launched into a stirring version of Does it Really Happen? from the 1980 Drama album, featuring some great bass from Billy Sherwood, prowling around the stage like a gunslinger walking into the saloon and owning the venue. Less assured were some wandering keyboard parts from Downes, but this was a ‘warm-up’ gig after all so it was never going to be perfect. The arrival on stage of Howe’s mandolin indicated the appearance of UK hit Wonderous Stories, from the classic 1977 Going for the One album, which went down very well with the crowd who sang along. Less familiar and somewhat surprising are the live debut of two songs from the most recent Yes album, The Quest, which Howe introduces proudly. The Ice Bridge, partly based on a keyboard idea by Francis Monkman of Curved Air and Sky fame, stood out with some great keyboards from Geoff Downes and a thrilling guitar and keys ‘duel’ later in the song. On a night when Downes did have some gremlins, this was a piece on which he excelled, and it helped him settle. Dare to Know includes some frankly rather cheesy sounding synth strings and horns which jar a little in comparison with the quality of the other songs being played. It is not a song which will persist in the memory, but at least they were trying something new.
Altogether more memorable was the magnificent Heart of the Sunrise from 1971’s Fragile. This piece features a great performance from American drummer Jay Schellen, who has been playing live with Yes in recent years as Alan White’s health declined. Jon Davison has been singing with Yes for ten years and shows quite some class on this piece, singing with passion… but the scene stealer and the emerging ‘Man of the Match’ (apart from the obviously stellar Steve Howe) is the outstanding bass playing from Billy Sherwood, putting his own stamp on a piece forever associated with Chris Squire.
The tour had originally been billed as focusing on 1974’s Relayer album, but at a late stage it was a little disappointingly re-focused on the 50th Anniversary for Close to the Edge… although to be fair, it’s hard to be disappointed when Yes play one of the greatest progressive rock albums ever made! Nevertheless, Close to the Edge gets off to a rather clunky beginning with Schellen playing some unscheduled drums with Howe having to shout him down in a less than fluid start. However, they soon get into the flow and regain their momentum. The great majority of the crowd are willing to forgive any slight errors as they realise this is a warm-up, and to be quite honest, they’re just delighted to be seeing them in such surroundings!
The beautiful And You and I is resplendent with Davison singing sweetly and Howe shining on slide guitar. Showing the sheer joy of just playing this music, Jay Schellen could be seen singing along (without a mic) to every word with a smile on his face as he played – he clearly just loves playing it. This was the band’s first gig since the Covid pandemic and there was a sense that they were just delighted to be playing to a live audience after so long… I bet they never thought it would be in some tiny venue tucked away in a remote corner of Devon! Siberian Khatru followed in a powerhouse performance, particularly Schellen on drums. There has been talk of Yes losing some power and pace in their music – maybe it was the atmosphere of a very different, intimate gig, maybe it was the enforced lay off and a hunger to play, but there was a sense of Yes playing with real vigour and power at The Wharf. The crowd understandably went bananas at the end and Yes returned to the inevitable encore of Roundabout, a song played over 2,000 times live! Part of me groans inwardly when it starts as it’s such an old chestnut, but it’s actually quite infectious as a live song, with Downes prowling his banks of keyboards with great dexterity. The fun is not over and to the delight of the crowd Yes finish the night with a barnstorming version of Starship Trooper, to cap off an excellent and diverse setlist and a highly entertaining gig.
‘The Night Yes played The Wharf in Tavistock’ will go down in the history of that fine venue as one of its most notable and memorable nights. It was certainly quite a coup for Angela and The Wharf to get the band to rehearse there for a week before the UK tour, and to put on a surprise ‘warm-up’ gig. It will also live long in the memory of the lucky punters who shared a small space with a legendary band at close quarters and loved every minute. It was not perfect – there were some definite glitches and false starts, but it really did not matter. The crowd knew the score – this was a band getting back in the saddle, and sometimes it takes a few tweaks to get back in the groove. It was a privilege to see them in action so close up.
There’s one elephant in the room I expect some will want to address: Is this really Yes?
In all honesty, I have not always been very positive about recent manifestations of Yes… and let’s not mention their previous 2014 album which even Howe admitted was ‘disappointing’. Jon Anderson has not been with the official Yes band since 2008 and Rick Wakeman finally stopped spinning round the revolving door of Yes’ keyboard spot in 2004, although both played in the ‘ARW’ version of Yes with Trevor Rabin in 2017. We could have a long debate as to the ins and outs and the rights and wrongs of these changes, but who knows what goes on in the politics of a band, especially one as turbulent as Yes!
Jon Davison is not Jon Anderson – who could be? – but he’s a fine singer in his own right and, in all fairness, does a great job in singing these iconic songs. Geoff Downes is not Rick Wakeman – again, who could be? – but he’s a very good keyboardist with his own style and take on the songs. Billy Sherwood has stepped into Chris Squire’s shoes with breath-taking aplomb and confidence, and Schellen has the unenviable task of replacing the great Alan White, and seems well up to the task. Steve Howe is a consummate artist and legend who seems as energetic and hungry for live playing as ever, and it is clearly his band now. He leads yes with dazzling virtuosity and no sign of it fading, based on his performance in Devon.
No, it’s not the classic line-up of Yes, and for obvious reasons it never can be again, but for now it’s the Yes we’ve got, so let’s just celebrate the music. I have seen excellent live gigs in recent years by other legends such as Gong and Tangerine Dream, and neither of them have any original band members remaining – but the gigs were still fabulous!
On this night in a tiny place in Devon, Yes were simply fabulous. Of course, the intimacy of the venue and the exclusive nature of a small and lucky crowd will influence that view, but at the end of the day, it was awe inspiring and just great fun watching the current highly skilled version of Yes play some of the greatest progressive rock ever written.
Is that really something to argue about or elicit negative and cynical comments, especially in the context of what else is going on in the World? No! Did we have fun and go home feeling brighter? YES!
On the Silent Wings of Freedom
Yours is No Disgrace
No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed
Does it Really Happen?
The Ice Bridge
Dare to Know
Heart of the Sunrise
Close to the Edge
And You and I
Steve Howe – Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Mandolin, Backing Vocals
Jon Davison – Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Electronic Drum Pad, Tambourine
Geoff Downes – Keyboards
Billy Sherwood – Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals
Jay Schellen – Drums & Percussion
[Photos by Leo Trimming]