It’s been fifty years since Yes first introduced the world to its symphonic rock, but the progressive rock yeomen remain caught up in perpetual change.
The first lineup change occurred back in 1970, when guitarist Steve Howe replaced Peter Banks. Then organist Tony Kaye stepped aside for keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman.
Two years later, drummer Alan White took over the sticks for Bill Buford, who absconded to King Crimson.
Disenchanted by the direction Yes had taken on the ambitious (if sprawling) 1973 double-album Tales From Topographic Oceans, Wakeman—already a noted session man (David Bowie, Elton John, Cat Stevens) quit to resume his solo career (Six Wives of Henry VIII, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, etc.).
It wouldn’t be Wakeman’s first—or last—exit from the band.
Since then (forty-three years ago) Yes has seen some twenty different musicians pass in and out of the roster. In 1991 its two most successful lineups—the ones responsible for “Roundabout” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart”—teamed up for an eight-man Union album and tour. It was these eight who were ultimately inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last April.
At other points in the band’s history, however, the bickering was so profound that two simultaneous iterations of Yes emerged from the schism to lay claim to their affirmative moniker.
Presently touring with Todd Rundgren and Carl Palmer (ELP, Asia) is the Howe / White version of Yes. In this lineup, bassist Billy Sherwood covers for longstanding member Chris Squire, who passed away in 2014. Geoff Downes—who played on the 1981 Yes album Drama before conspiring with Howe in Asia (“Heat of the Moment”)—plays keyboards. Singer Jon Davison supplanted Benoit David, who’d inherited the mic from original vocalist / band cofounder Jon Anderson in 2008.
The other faction of the band currently making the rounds features maestro Anderson himself (who sang all the ‘70s and ’80 hits), guitarist Trevor Rabin (of “Owner” fame), and the aforementioned Wakeman.
It was this latter configuration (formerly known as ARW) that pulled into the Goodyear Theater at East End in Akron, Ohio, on Friday Sept. 15 for an evening of Yes music which—to many in attendance—adhered closely to the sound and spirit of the recorded versions they remember.
Not that anyone’s keeping score (ahem).
So why aren’t these three part of Howe’s Yes? Where’ve they been these last ten years?
A respiratory infection forced Anderson into semi-retirement after the 2004 Yes tour. But he’s since made a full recovery, having collaborated with other prog-rock luminaries like Jean-Luc Ponty (Frank Zappa, Al DiMeola) and Roine Stolt (Flower Kings, Transatlantic) on one-off projects. Rabin’s last studio work with Yes was the overlooked 1994 gem Talk, whose lukewarm reception effectively kick-started his new career as an action movie composer (Armageddon, Con-Air, Snakes on a Plane, etc.). Wakeman did a few mini-tours and acoustic piano gigs, but has largely stuck to the U.K. radio and the BBC television circuit (Grumpy Old Men).
Turns out Rabin and Wakeman (who never played together in Yes until Union) got on so well during the 1991 octo-tour that they determined to work together in the future. That moment arrived at some point in 2010: Anderson and Wakeman cooperated on The Living Tree that year, but both singer and keyboardist reached out to Rabin via phone and email. The guitarist’s head was still in the movies, but his calendar was clearer than it’d been in ages.
Rumor has it the trio’s already laid groundwork for a joint album, vis-à-vis file sharing from the guys’ respective home studios. But Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman—ARW—are reluctant to share anything new on their current tour for fear bootleg recordings might let those kittens out of the bag. Their fear isn’t irrational: Like Pink Floyd and King Crimson, Yes (and its many factions) are one of the ‘net’s most actively pirated / shared bands going.
So the ticket-holding aficionados in Akron had to settle for the old stuff when the three elder statesmen rolled into the Rubber City Friday night (September 15) for a gig at the Goodyear Theater.
Not that anybody minded.
On the contrary, this crowd loved what they heard, rewarding nearly every tune with a standing ovation. The ARW ensemble played only ten or eleven numbers, but when it comes to Yes songs, you’re really talking about pieces of music that vary in length from five to twenty-five minutes each.
So the evening’s selections encompassed nearly two hours—and drew equally from the band’s “classic” ‘70s ouvre and its rhythmic ‘80s resurgence.
90125 instrumental “Cinema” gave Rabin (in jeans and striped dress shirt) time to warm his fingers on one his custom Stratocaster guitars. At the opposite end of the stage, Wakeman (looking noble in a golden glitter cape) busied himself behind his bank of keyboards—a veritable nest comprised of eight or nine different synths (Roland Fantom, Korg Kronos, Gem, etc).
Anderson (in black suit with vertical white trim) emerged as Rabin ripped into 1971 Yes Album onslaught “Perpetual Change” and assumed his position center-stage on a platform that provided a little extra height.
“There you are, saying we have the moon, so now the stars!” he belted, sounding not at all like a man once beset by bronchial issues.
Anderson looked fit, too, and was more animated on stage than he’s been since the mid-‘90s. The spritely singer danced throughout the night, keeping kinetic with his dreamcatcher tambourine and finger cymbals as Rabin and Wakeman wove melodic tapestries with strings and synths. Mountain-climbing canto “South Side of the Sky” (from Fragile) was a pulsating romp whose midsection allowed Wakeman to shine on piano, his delicate runs offsetting the snowbound menace of Anderson’s alto-tenor verses.
The second bit from the Rabin-helmed 90125—the energetic “Hold On”—has aged well despite its arena-rock origins, charging the “common ground, round and round” with its big beats, soaring lead guitar, and a cappella breakdown (“such platonic eyes”).
Up next was the first of two Yes masterworks: Hailing from 1972’s Close to the Edge, the multi-movement “And You And I” put Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman through their paces, with the guitarist relying on effects pedals to replicate the acoustic timbres recorded by Howe. Clocking in at ten-plus minutes, the album-side saw the Yesmen successfully navigate the “Cord of Life,” “Eclipse,” “Preacher / Teacher,” and “Apocalypse” subsections with grace and grandeur.
A double-shot of Rabin oldies came next, in the form of Big Generator (1987) boogie “Rhythm of Love” and Talk (1995) treat “I Am Waiting.” Anderson strapped on an acoustic guitar to contribute chords to the mix, leaving the finger acrobatics to his peers, but really got into the groove. He even copped a couple Elvis swivel-hip moves, as if to underscore his rediscovered physicality.
Staccato rocker “Heart of the Sunrise” capitalized on Anderson’s cosmic lyrics and the musician’s fluttery—but steadfast and synchronized—seesaw riffing.
If you weren’t ready for the “sharp, distance” metaphysics of that offering, then you certainly weren’t prepared for the quasi-mystical “gentle mass touch” mayhem of Epic #2: Clocking in at twelvish minutes, Going for the One grand finale “Awaken” was occasioned by the “Vevey” harp / organ duet first heard on the Yes Years box set. Anderson returned to his harp halfway through the suite, plucking and pulling the strings with a gloved left hand while Wakeman dialed up gothic / Renaissance pastiches and church-like tones on his Korg.
It was positively spine-tingling, majestic and moving.
Rabin prefaced chart smash “Owner of a Lonely Heart” with his “Make It Easy” shred guitar intro, depressing his foot pedals for a few wailing, finger-flailing runs up the neck. Anderson encouraged the audience to pitch in on the familiar chorus while Rabin and Wakeman took to the aisles, roving the theater with Strat and “keytar” to the delight of spectators seated in the orchestra section. The mischievous musicians even quoted some Jimi Hendrix and Cream (“Sunshine of Your Love”) in their duel.
Fragile encore “Roundabout” gave the ARW rhythm combo a much-deserved spotlight: Southpaw bassist Lee Pomeroy (ELO, Steve Hackett) was immaculate on his Rickenbacker four-string, deftly negotiating Squire’s familiar lines with skill and reverence. Drummer Louis Molino III (Kenny Loggins, Trevor Horn) wasn’t at all tripped up by Bill Bruford’s jazz fills or Alan White’s brutal beats. On the contrary, the percussionist wire-walked the realms of both Yes batistas all while injecting his stick work and brush strokes with a little personality of his own.
You might say the evening of Yes music was positively perfect.