Those that know me well may recall that that there was a not so brief period in my early and mid teens when I was tangibly more into the band Yes than any artist before or since. My obsession extended to waking up in the morning having dreamed entire imaginary ‘lost’ albums, and I distinctly remember my excitement in around 1982, whilst in a caravan in France, hearing on the radio that Yes were to reform, somewhat tempered by the crushing disappointment of the subsequent release of ‘90125’. I rather lost interest at their new music at that point, and remain relatively unconversant in the subsequent group politicking, but as my own tastes refined and splintered off, it didn’t diminish the highpoint of interviewing original Yes drummer Bill Bruford in his own home in the final days of Facelift. I still return to those early Yes albums, but amazingly enough had never seen any of their various incarnations live, a legacy possibly my early fan days, during a nadir in progressive rock recognition, when you just didn’t get to see your heroes; or subsequently when I couldn’t afford to!
So it’s something of a surprise to find myself at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, home of the Halle Orchestra, for the second time a few months (the first time was Van der Graaf Generator), hearing Yes perform the album that started it all off for me, ‘Close To The Edge’, that astonishingly polished, funky, exploratory and yet still relatively accessible album with its 3 classic tracks. Chris Squire died in 2015, Bill Bruford somewhat ostentatiously ‘retired’ a few years back, Jon Anderson has had his fair share of health issues but is currently preparing a counter-performance of the same album; and Rick Wakeman is doing other things. Add into the mix the fact that long standing drummer Alan White died suddenly a few weeks back (he was due to play on this tour) means that the current Yes line-up is somewhat removed from any notion of a ‘classic’ line-up, with only Steve Howe present from the original ‘Close’ members, albeit that singer Jon Davison, bassist Billy Sherwood and keyboard player Geoff Downes all have considerable previous pedigree with the band’s various post 1980 lineups and Jay Schellen, who fills the empty drum stool (somewhat poignantly as he was a friend of Alan White and had previously performed live alongside White with the band).
The tour is billed as a ‘UK Album Series Tour’, and I believe originally was due to perform, before COVID got in the way, the classic 1974 album ‘Relayer’, presumably as Alan White had also been involved on that album. However a change of plan was made a while ago to tie in with ‘Close To The Edge’s’ 50th year anniversary. In fact, the second half performance of that entire album turns out to be only part of tonight’s story: the gig is introduced by none other than Roger Dean, extraordinary album cover artist whose artwork is intertwined with Yes’ output from 1971 album ‘Fragile’ onwards. Alongside a tribute to White (backed by piped music to ‘Turn Of The Century’ from the ‘Going For The One’ album) , Dean somewhat elegantly managed to hint that he didn’t have the rights to present his own artwork in front of this audience, whilst also pointing out that he was on tour with the band for the first time since the Seventies. He was also available at the mid-session interview to talk to fans alongside an exhibition of his work including early sketches for some of the albums’ artwork, a charming and modest bloke.
Once on stage, the band launched into ‘Silent Wings of Freedom’ from 1978’s ‘Tormato’, an album so (deservedly?) unheralded I scarcely recognised it, before starting to dip into the heavy hitters: ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’, which really launched Steve Howe into public consciousness on 1970’s ‘The Yes Album’: here made memorable, as I’d anticipated, through the guitarist weaving through his series of contrasting solos at the end of the piece. I’ve seen debate recently on social media about whether Yes’ first two albums should be considered part of their seminal period – I’ve always had my doubts – but tonight ‘No Opportunity Necessary…’ represented that era, Howe pointing out that although his tenure in the band post-dated its recording, he had originally arrived in time to perform it live.
Jumping between eras ‘Does It Really Happen’, from 1980’s Drama album (on which Downes appeared), a track I’d entirely forgotten about, dominated by Billy Sherwood’s rasping bass replication of Chris Squire’s original memorable line, was unexpectedly one of the evening’s highlights, before the mood softened firstly with Howe’s guitar piece ‘The Clap’ and a faithful rendition of the band’s greatest hit ‘Wondrous Stories’.
At this point it’s probably worth giving you an insight into the current band both visually and sonically as it’s quite a curious spectacle: Howe is clearly the master of ceremonies here – although his often startling lunges towards the audience are a tad ungainly and unexpected – with a whole library of guitars to his left, wheeled out (sometimes on stands) by a guitar tech; his mastery of styles remains undiminished although his dexterity is perhaps slowing a little. Billy Sherwood, his expression rarely breaking from an apparently troubled countenance, grumbling bass often gloriously up in the mix punctuating those seminal Squire bass lines, and a fine backing vocalist too – we’ll skirt over for the moment the occasional technical mishap or bum note with his bass – his desire to slightly push the envelope was appreciated. And for dedicated progwatchers, he was the only one of the band becaped, with guitar leads apparently trailing from his coattails, seemingly almost bungeed to his amps as he frequently wandered towards Howe stage left but never quite got there… Jon Davison cuts a slight, trim figure with long hair billowing, presumably coiffeured from some unseen airvent; the fact that his vocal register is so perfectly matched to that of Jon Anderson’s is somewhat unnerving – his voice is clear, he never misses a note and amongst the entire band is the only one who oozes natural self-confidence… but those of us who have never seen Jon Anderson perform live could perhaps be forgiven for wondering if he has quite the same otherworldly tinge to top end of the register. Geoff Downes is way down the mix to the benefit of both guitar and bass: perhaps a nod to a desire not to try to recreate Rick Wakeman’s virtuosity, and stands within a U-shaped arrangement of a slightly preposterous arrangement of no less than 9 keyboards; whilst Jay Schellen, mouthing each of the beats as he plays them, performs diligently enough, without ever being allowed to stray into Brufordian realms of invention.
The first set concludes with two tracks from ‘Quest’ (last year’s new album featuring all members here bar Schellen) of variable but not entirely unworthy merit before a Sherwood-fuelled rendition of ‘Heart of the Sunrise’, one of the great bass lines tackled with gusto. This track is so hardwired in my brain that I was expecting Bruford’s subtle embellishments as the piece builds: no joy there but the interplay between the main themes remains extraordinary…
Often the second set of performances are more of a blur – nothing to do with any alcohol imbibement I hasten to add but more a testament to a familiarity with the environment and an immersion in occasion. Possibly also bands raise their games a little and/or the audience’s expectations is higher. Either way, the rendition of the entire ‘Close To The Edge’ album was mesmeric: the chaos of the opening 3 minutes of the title track with the seemingly random vocal interjections; the beautifully rendered reflective middle section; and once again a composition which builds and intertwines so memorably. ‘And You And I’, involving Davison on an extra acoustic guitar was breezed through with fine vocals, until a high-octane rendition of ‘Siberian Khatru’ (alongside ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ my favourite Yes track) saw things off in style courtesy of an astonishing extended guitar solo from Howe.
Yes were (and are) such an extraordinary mixture of styles: wonderfully clear 3 part harmonies, driving, funky bass lines, nods towards country music, and classical references which at least until after ‘Close To The Edge’ didn’t stray into the pompous. This perhaps explains why that album for me remains the high point of the band, wonderful to hear 50 years on and it was for the most part expertly recreated.
Perhaps I could be forgiven for regarding the two encores as somewhat superfluous after the main event, but for the record, a rumbustious ‘Roundabout’ (where Downes and Schellen were finally released from their shackles) and an uplifting ‘Starship Trooper’ sent the punters home happy.
Catch the remainder of the Yes tour below: