“Yes, Yes, The Moment I See You, It’s So Good To Be With You”
Prog Rock Mastodons Yes hit town for one night and played at the State Theatre. The lineup included old perennials Steve Howe, Alan White and Chris Squire, but also Geoff Downes on keyboards and new guy Jon Davison on vocals. Yes, the big surprise was that Benoit David who replaced Jon Anderson, wasn’t there. Somehow Yes had managed to find another castrati in a hurry and plugged him into the rigours of singing and fronting for this immensely acrobatic music.
It’s been a good decade since Yes toured Australia and last time they toured with the ‘golden era’ lineup that included Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson. On that occasion, they worked their way through the massive pieces like ‘Ritual’ and ‘Awaken’ as well as extended solos from Rick and Steve. I remember feeling it was great to see them but they didn’t quite have the oomph as I had hoped. Part of that feeling was the impersonal space of the Empty Container Centre last time.
This recent show was a totally different kettle of fish. In every way, the State Theatre with its overwrought decor, is a far more appropriate space for this incredibly rococo kind of Rock. You can insert all the Spinal Tap jokes you like but the smaller space added a great deal of immediacy and intimacy to the music.
What Was Good About It
With Yes, it’s always about the performance, so it goes without saying it was impeccable. They seemed to be having a much better time of it this time around. Steve Howe was doing more dancing around and Chris Squire being the front man seemed more relaxed.
Jon Davison is a great substitute for Anderson, Horn and now David. At moments he sounded uncannily like Jon Anderson circa 1972 on record. His voice helped wind the clock back a long way without it going to nostalgia but to a renewed, vigorous rendition of the classics.
Because of the lineup, they were free to play a slightly upbeat catalogue of songs. They played ‘Tempus Fugit’ off ‘Drama’. I thought I’d never hear that live, but live long enough and miracles happen. It was truly a spectacle, and that was just the second song of the night. It never would have happened with Jon Anderson singing.
The other notable thing was the strength of the material off ‘Fly From Here’ and how much they played form the new album. It was very good to get a feel for how forward looking they were at this point in their career. They trotted out the golden oldies too, but there was a solid 30minutes of ‘Fly From Here’ in the show, and I think that bodes well for the band.
What Was Bad About It
‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’. A horror.
I know it was their *big* hit in the 1980s, but without Trevor Rabin on guitar, it’s really hard to get the full vibe of the original; but all the same Steve Howe put in such a bizzarro effort. We know he doesn’t like the song, nor does he like Trevor Rabin, but the contempt was too obvious. When it got to the solo, he busted out country licks. It was a parody performance more than a proper interpretation. If Geoff Downes has to suck it up and play Rick Wakeman bits and Alan White has to play Bill Bruford bits, I don’t quite get why Steve Howe can’t knuckle down and learn that solo. Even I can do an approximation – It’s not that hard. Surely a master guitar player like Steve Howe can do his approximation better.
Or maybe the vernacular of 80’s shred is totally alien to Steve Howe. I don’t know. But I’ve seen it on DVD too – it is one song that Yes trot out because it was their big hit, but never seem to nail properly. That country inflected pitch-shifter leadbreak sounds ridiculous.
Also, there’s always a guy who’s waiting for that song at a Yes concert because that’s all he knows about them. He probably got suckered into the concert on the strength of that song alone. He has to jump up when it starts. It’s tragic.
What Was Interesting About It
The whole night was a kind of masterclass. There was so much to take in and to try and grok.
Chris Squire and his Rickenbacker bass were prominent as you’d expect. He seemed to be on the Rickenbacker more than he was last time in Sydney. Steve Howe also seemed to have cut a guitar or two from his constant changes. The Steinberger headless didn’t make an appearance.
Because of their varied catalogue, it’s always interesting what they don’t play.
- They didn’t play anything from the 60s before Steve Howe joined.
- They didn’t play anything from ‘Relayer’. Not surprising
- They didn’t play anything from ‘Tormato’. A little surprised they didn’t do ‘On The Silent Wings of Freedom’.
- They played ‘Wondrous Stories’, but not ‘Awaken’ from ‘Going For The One’.
- They did not play anything from ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’. You can sort of see why.
- They didn’t play ‘Close To The Edge’ either.
- They didn’t play anything from the 90s: ‘Magnification’. “The Ladder’ ‘Open Your Eyes’ ‘Keys to Ascension’, ‘Talk’, ‘Union’ all got short shrift.
Then again, this could be because Jon Davison was doing only his fifth gig with Yes and his strengths were in doing the old standards. Still, the overall feeling was that Yes were still a band moving forwards playing new stuff as well as their ancient classics. Afterwards, I walked out of the theatre feeling like there was still another album in these guys.
Steve Howe And His Guitars
Steve Howe’s Gibson ES 175 has a 3rd pickup in it. I don’t know how long he’s had it, but I was surprised to see it. On a related note, Steve Howe is a much more supple and fluid player on the ES 175 than he is on the Gibson Les Paul. He just seems to coax more out of the ES 175 than he does on the Les Paul. All the 1970s stuff sounds just like the albums coming off the ES 175.
As the material gets more modern, he seems to shift from the ES 175 to the Les Paul and then to the red Stratocaster. Much of the ‘Fly From Here’ material was done with the Stratocaster. I think it’s interesting how the Stratocaster thing has eventually caught up with him. It’s a little bit like with Pete Townshend who spent the 1970s playing on Gibsons, only to end up on a Stratocaster (a red one too) at the turn of the millennium. Howe too seems to have gravitated to the Stratocaster for both tone and playability.
The old faithful Fender pedal steel was still there, obviously to play ‘And You And I’ but also sections on ‘Fly From Here’. The Mandolin made a couple of appearances too. The guitar tech who kept swapping instruments on cue was remarkable. At one point Steve Howe reached out mid song to get a cup of water for him – and Howe didn’t miss a beat when he came back in to play.
Geoff Downes Has Serious Chops
You know he does at the back of your brain, but when you hear him do all those Wakeman parts without breaking a sweat, you realise how scary good he is. He’s not showy like Wakeman, but through the nonchalance you get glimpses of a pretty stunning player. He’s not playing in Yes by mistake; he’s as good as any of the other keyboard players that have worked in Yes. His track record of being with The Buggles and Asia often nets him a reputation that ranks him lower than Rick Wakeman or Patrick Moraz but it’s an incorrect appraisal.
Yes need to do another album with Geoff Downes.
The Best Rhythm Section In Rock
I still think it’s these guys. I know there are now younger and flashier players, but Alan White and Chris Squire play such complicated stuff in lock-sync with tremendous feel. It’s unlike anything else in rock. Yes, I know once upon a time there were John Paul Jones and John Bonham who always get their props and there was Moon and Entwistle, but Alan White and Chris Squire are spectacular as a duo, have been for a very long time, and are still alive to keep on doing it as well as any other time in their long careers.
My own theory why the ‘Anderson Wakeman Bruford Howe’ project didn’t really work was because it was missing these two doing the engine room stuff. Together with Steve Howe, they are Yes.
That Rickenbacker Bass
The most notable thing about Chris Squire’s Rickenbacker bass might be how small it looks on the man. It looks like about the size of a Strat on an ordinary person. And he totally monsters the thing as he plucks, picks, squeezes, throttles and bashes all kinds of tones out of it.
A lot of Yes music is possible because a big burly bear of a man can manhandle a Rickenbacker bass like it was some deep-toned ukulele. In turn, that Rickenbacker 4001 bass of his is really old school. It has the old style ‘toaster’ in the neck and the ‘horseshoe’ by the bridge. They’re not the ‘hi-gain’ pickups of later models – It’s amazing what he coaxes out of them.
Once upon a time it might have been progressive, but there’s been so much music and history under the bridge since then, it seems embarrassing to call this stuff progressive any more. It’s a funny world; somebody was trying to tell me that there was such a thing as Progressive House. I kind of blinked as I tried to wrap my head around it. If Symphonic Rock was as nonsensical as saying Strawberry Bricks, then surely Progressive House is like saying deluxe turd burger.
I don’t really know where music is meant to progress to, or why it necessarily has to progress anywhere. Indeed, the career of Yes might be a case in point for how not to progress. Still, issues of genre are not as interesting or valuable as issues of qualia and quality. If anything about Yes matters, it’s always going to be composition, recording and performance above all. Did rock progress as a result of Yes? Maybe in some parts. But in most parts, it degenerated with the subsequent styles.
It’s hard to argue for Yes music having a shred of relevance to today’s world, given that what is on radio and popular is now totally unlike even rock music itself. It’s always going to be music for musicians and the discerning. There’s a place for it in the world, but it’s always disappointing how marginal it ends up being. The world would be better with more of this players’ music, but there’s not enough of a market who get it and can support it robustly.